Why do we recycle so little of our textile waste? #508


Before the start of the new government, President Emmanuel Macron had set the tone: the era of carefree living and abundance (of land, materials, water) is over. Global warming, combined with the health crisis and the strengthening of authoritarian regimes, promises upheavals in our value scales. Energy sobriety, once mocked by the Keynesian doxa, will suddenly climb to the highest rungs of this scale, supported by the imprecations of political ecology.

In the face of these new imperatives, fashion is being asked to show a clean slate. As a reminder, this sector is one of the most polluting in the world, releasing billions of microfibres into the environment every year, not to mention the exuberant water consumption required to grow certain fibres. Water that will be sorely lacking in the decades to come. A few figures: it takes up to 20,000 litres of water to grow one kilogram of cotton. A European produces more than 15 kilos of textile waste per year.

Recycling is therefore a necessity. Can all materials be recycled? A brief overview is in order. First of all, the recycling of wool seems obvious. It goes back to the Middle Ages, as the Première Vision trade show reminds us, and points out that wool workers were the pioneers of mechanical recycling, allowing winter fabrics to have a new life. This technique has been adapted to cotton, which can also be sorted into colour batches, shredded and re-fibred into a new quality. Cotton can also be chemically recycled into new cellulose materials. Linen and hemp (which require far less water and pesticides to grow than cotton) are being considered for the same route.

Only 1 per cent of materials produced are derived from textile-to-textile recycling

As far as leather is concerned, the industry regularly reminds us that it is historically linked to recycling since it is intrinsically derived from it (animals such as cows or sheep are not bred for their skins but for their meat). Finally, metals also enter recycling loops very quickly, while the slightest drop in production is quickly melted down and used in a new creation. In short, cotton, wool, leather and metals can all be recycled. The horizon therefore seems bright.

And it’s all the brighter because the European Union’s strategy for sustainable and circular textiles includes measures to reduce the amount of textiles going to landfill by requiring more recycled textiles to be included in clothing designs. The problem is that only 1 per cent of textile waste is currently recycled and made into new clothes. There are several reasons for this gap between expectations, possibilities and results. The first and most important reason is that polyester has grown rapidly over the last 20 years, driven by fast fashion brands such as Shein, H&M, Asos, Boohoo and Forever 21.

However, the ever-increasing consumption of synthetic materials requires significant fossil and petrochemical resources. While recycling of synthetics is possible, it requires virgin petrochemical resources and comes from the recycling of PET bottles. It therefore helps to recycle waste from the food industry and does nothing to recycle the products that the textile industry puts on the market. What solutions? In the coming decades, brands and retailers will have no other choice than to reduce our dependence on synthetics first of all. But they should also favour single-material fabrics (or, at most, two-material fabrics of the same type) and long fibres, which are real assets for the second life of a material.

“Very few recycling plants accept garments made from several different fabrics, for example 95 per cent cotton and 5 per cent elastane. In such cases, the cotton is recycled and the elastane is burnt, which unfortunately always has an impact on the environment,” confirms designer Grėtė Švėgždaitė, who founded the brand Gretes in Lithuania. The brand transforms recycled sleepwear into yarn that can be used by other manufacturers, putting the fabric back into the production chain and reducing pressure on landfills.