Why is it Difficult to Recycle Your Clothes

Difficulties in cloth recycling

Since the start of the series, most of the discussion revolved around the recycling of pre-consumer textile waste mainly because these wastes are very easy to recycle when channelled through the right recycling process. Recycling of post-consumer goods, on the other hand, opens up a lot of challenges and this article will try to shed some light over those challenges suggesting possible solutions and create awareness of better apparel consumption.

What is post-consumer textile waste?

Post-consumer textile wastes are the garments, home furnishing textile products, or any other textile material which are thrown away after their useful life. Since consumer goods cover a wide variety of products this article will be limiting most of its discussion to apparels. Apparel consists of a major part of our lifestyle and with time our consumption has increased. 

Currently, an average consumer consumes 60% more clothing than what they consumed 15 years ago with each item kept half as long or discarded after just seven to ten wear. To put it in value, less than 1% of clothing into a same or similar quality application, around 12% are downcycled to inferior products which add up to a loss of about $500billion due to absence of recycling of apparel products. 

This raises a question as to why these garments are not recycled? What is limiting the industry to use these garments to make quality products? The answer to this is as follows.

The problem with recycling clothes

At present apparel products consists of dresses, t-shirts, shirts, trousers, jackets, undergarments etc. made from fibres ranging from cotton, linen, silk, wool, cellulosic fibres such as viscose, modal, lyocell, polyester, acrylic, elastane, spandex etc and to put a cherry on the top, there are blends which are a mix of different fibres to attain different fabric properties according to needs. From the point of an average consumer with all these above fibres the options for garments are immense but when it comes to recycling, every fibre would require its recycling process which sets the difficulty level to a whole new level. 

Adding to the cut, for blends, the first step would need the blend to be separated before recycling and for different blends, it would require different process making recycling even more difficult. Also, these recycling processes have to be such that there is no downgrading of the fibres else the purpose of closed-loop recycling drops down. You can find more about recycling cotton and cotton blends here.

Then comes fabric colours. Earlier there were only a few dyes and they were mostly based on natural compounds which meant being environment friendly. But at present days with the upcoming of synthetic dyes the apparel market became filled with different colours of different types of dyes. Also, there are pigments which are used for different types of printings. These chemicals are mostly made of different compounds and create a lot of constraints for chemical recycling. This being a very sensitive process are often affected by such compound and there is a drastic loss in the efficiency of the process. For mechanical recycling, dyed fabric often do not create much of a problem. Due to such dyes there often comes the need for a thorough wash or bleach to remove those chemicals and that also affect fibre quality.

Product trust also becomes a big issue as at present the number of unidentified apparel overshadows the trusted products from reputed brands. Without such trust there is no guarantee for the fibres used, blend ratios, chemicals used in dyes and prints etc. and this creates a lot of variables during textile recycling. These variations hinder the recycling process, lower its efficiency or even make it unfeasible.

Garment accessories also have a key role in hindering textile recycling. At present, if you look at any of the garment in your closet, its 100% sure of having some form of accessories. These accessories are in the form of sewing thread, buttons, zippers, tags, mobelin tape, lining material etc. Like the others above this does not completely disrupt the recycling process but has to be removed for consistent and quality product thus adding an extra step to the process.

Finally, there is the drawback from textile waste collection. Even before thinking of recycling, the first challenge there is to collect the garments in the best of condition. An idle collection system should be accessible to all the people, cluster them according to different fibres, colours, inspire people to recycle which is scarce. But few companies are have started to grow on these ideas, namely H&M, Levi’s, Mud Jeans etc. as they have been rewarding their customers for bringing in old products to recycle. This style of apparel collection is much practical and more brands should start with a similar process.

There are also other causes as well like poor quality of fabric after prolonged use, lack of proper technology, etc. and all of this has blended in making your clothes recycle even harder. With such a wide range of challenges, there are solutions, but at present, they seem very farfetched.

Solutions

With such a wide range of problems, making post-consumer recycle possible would require practical and generalized solutions. Suggesting some of them, for fibre variation, we can shift out consumption of man-made fibres to natural fibres or wear blended garments whose fibre components are easy to separate. An example can be, using more cotton garments which also benefits in minimizing the consumption of polyester or other man-made fibres. Also for all the purchase, the garments must be ensured of sustainable make and sourcing. This would mean the use of certified raw materials which always are better for recycling. The consumers should also be aware of using simpler products as there would be fewer accessories and embellishments to remove before the recycling process. There should also be the use of natural dyes and water-based pigments for dyeing and printing. Being a consumer these small decisions during the purchase can ensure a smooth recycling process.

But there is only so much that a consumer can do. There has to proper channels for collecting the waste and make them reach different recyclers. Apparel brands can play a huge role in collecting such used garments and send them to the process of recycling which some of the well-renounced brands are already doing. Also, technological improvements have been a bottleneck and it is high time to work on improving these technologies and making it commercialized and accessible. Various organizations and academic institutions have already come up with such technologies which are at the moment getting ready to be commercialized. For further info click here.

Conclusion

To conclude this, it is safe to say that there already has been an awakening in the textile industry about recycling and sustainability. This means that the present challenges will be worked around by technologists and apparel industry, streamlining the recycling process and thus making it closed loop. This will take some time, but at the present rate, there soon will be growth in textile recycling with post-consumer waste contributing the maximum of it.


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