Fashion’s Textile Recycling Promise Has a Scale Problem #801


Millions of tonnes of T-shirts and dresses are dumped or burned every year. Turning old clothes into new ones is possible — the question is whether it is a realistic solution.

The sun is always shining in the Swedish seaside town of Sundsvall, according to the staff of Renewcell, the world’s first commercial-scale textile-to-textile recycling factory.

Renewcell’s enormous warehouse opened last year. It sits on the water’s edge, with easy access for the ships that deliver 400kg bales of shredded cotton and denim from textile waste sorters in Germany, Switzerland and Sweden. Inside the warehouse, the large rectangular bales are stacked in colossal fabric pyramids, each exploding with ribbons of navy blue and black fabric. Each towering pile weighs 500 tonnes. Every month, the plant can take 10 times that amount and turns it into a material called Circulose. Circulose looks and feels like chalky craft paper, but it can be used to make viscose rayon (usually made from wood pulp) and, in turn, new clothes.

“Instead of sending [textile waste] to landfill or incineration, we want to pick it up and be that circularity,” says Patrick Lundström, the CEO of Renewcell. “We see ourselves as the missing link in the fashion industry.”

The opening of the plant could not come soon enough. The question of what to do with the mountains of textile waste produced by the fashion industry is increasingly pressing. Images of used garments strewn across the beaches of Ghana and the dunes of the Atacama desert in Chile highlight the truth of waste colonialism — the practice of big waste producers such as the UK offloading their waste on to poorer countries without effective waste management — and reveal how overproduction has rendered piles of T-shirts, dresses and jeans worthless to charities and resellers.