Low-Quality Fibres Undermine Textile Recycling

Experts fear that low-quality textiles – not designed for circularity - will downgrade the efforts to boost textile recycling as the separate collection becomes mandatory under the updated EU Waste Directive. ‘’The obligation to separately collect textiles by 2025 will mechanically increase the supply of used textiles, shoes and accessories without addressing current issues linked to poor circular textiles’ design and low-quality materials which directly impact preparing for re-use and recycling of used textiles,’’ said from EuRic, the European Recycling Industries’ Confederation. A recently published report by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency comparing textile collection and treatment in 6 European counties estimates that over the next 5 years an additional 1.4 million tonnes non-reusable textiles will be collected annually in Europe. Once no longer in use, unwanted clothes are usually brought to at a collection point – bring banks and curbside collector, from where they are transported for industrial sorting. The best-quality garments that could be worn again are skimmed off and sent to second-hand markets for re-use. However, the global market for re-used clothing is also crumbling under the pressure of growth-obsessed fast fashion retail offering low-quality clothing. The remaining clothes, the non-wearables, are considered waste that needs to be handled. But experts suggest the technologies and systems are not advanced enough to handle such a huge amount of collected waste mainly due to the composition of our clothes. ‘’Multi-layer garments and garments with fibre blends containing three or more different fibre types are not suited for fibre-to-fibre recycling,’’ clarified from EuRic adding: ‘’The only technique for fibre-to-fibre recycling currently existing and operational on a semi-industrial level is for the cotton. For this technique, the garments have to consist currently out of 90% cotton.[..] Recycling techniques for polyester and viscose are being developed but are not on an industrial level at the moment.’’ Globally 60 % of all textiles on the market are of synthetic origin compared to only 37 % for cotton. Using raw materials deriving from fossil fuels downgrades the quality of the produced fibres, even before it reaches the end of life. Once discarded, these textiles become very difficult to recycle. ‘’In line with the waste hierarchy textiles should be re-used as much as possible before being recycled. Low-quality textiles are less suitable for re-use and therefore, less sustainable’’, explained from EuRic. For waste collectors, the textiles classified as unwearable are a burden because they can’t be sold for second-hand use and don’t bring any profit. But making recycling economically viable could be done by introducing ‘’Extended Producers Responsibility’’ – a move that the EU Commissions is set to make with the upcoming Textile Strategy. Under this scheme, the producers will be financially responsible when their products are thrown away. Currently, France is the only country with legislation that makes extended producers responsibility mandatory, which put the county at the top of the chart for hitting recycling targets. Experts argue that understanding better the lifecycle of products rather than making products recyclable might be the key to reduce textile waste. Keeping products you already have in use for longer through care, remodelling or repair could help the fashion industry to cut approx. 143 million GHG emissions by 2030, cites the latest GFA and McKinsey’s “Fashion on Climate” report. This circular model is a trademark for fur garments where 76 % of fur owners say that intend to extend the life of garments through remodelling, donation or re-sale when the garment is no longer in use. According to McKinsey’s reports, repair and refurbishments alone could potentially double the lifetime of a product. Different experts see different ways to cut waste and tackle its environmental cost. However, they agree that all roads go through cutting overconsumption of low-quality textile and making sure that the ones which ultimately become waste are recyclable.