We want to preserve textile fibres for as long as feasible, and as high up in the cycle as possible. Only when they can no longer be used to create new textiles, only then should they be repurposed as stuffing for car doors, says Maria Elander.

Recycling and reuse – by hook or by crook

The production and trading of clothes, is one of the world’s largest industries and its ecological footprint is huge. And there seems to be no end to how much we consume. In Sweden we buy on average 13 kilos of clothing per person per year.

he fashion industry has a huge impact on the environment. The cultivation of cotton requires large amounts of pesticide and water. The manufacture of a single T-shirt requires 1800 litres of water and generates greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 3 kg of CO2. Over half of all synthetic fabrics are spun from fossil fuels — these carry commonly recognized generic names, such as acrylic, polyester and nylon.

– The Swedes consume around 13 kilo textiles per person per year, almost 30 per cent more than in 2000. Only a small part of these textiles are collected for reuse or recycling and as much as eight kilos are thrown into the household trash. This is acerbated by the fact that there are still no effective processes for the sorting and recycling of textile products. Most clothes discarded in Sweden end up in an incinerator, says Maria Elander at IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute.

Interest in creating circular and more sustainable value chains for textiles is growing. Several large fashion houses have introduced clothing collection in their stores and the second-hand market for clothing and home textiles is steadily on the increase. Moreover, technologies for recycling textile fibres are becoming more advanced, and here a range of initiatives are developing and evaluating processes for recycling textile fibres so that they can be utilized for new production.

– A particular hurdle for increased recycling is that currently far too few textiles are collected. Consequently, one of the major challenges we face is to return more used textiles to continual circulation. That so little is collected is partly because consumers do not always know how and where to donate discarded clothing and textiles, but perhaps primarily because many think the process is too much bother. It must be easy to do the right thing, emphasizes Maria Elander, who coordinates IVL’s activities in the textile field.

Certified textile collection

In 2015 IVL participated in three textile projects: the Nordic textile reuse and Recycling commitment on behalf of the Nordic Council, Vinnova-funded Swedish Innovation Platform for the Textile Sorting (SIPTex) and Mistra Future Fashion.

The Nordic textile reuse and recycling commitment examines how the  certification of textile collection contributes to greater transparency and a more sustainable management of textile waste. A certification system that ensures that only serious actors able to meet relevant quality criteria are permitted to collect textiles increases the credibility and acceptance of the collection  service. If all goes according to plan such a system can be launched in late 2016.

Today some of the clothing and textiles collected in Sweden are sorted locally, partly for reuse and sold at thrift stores, while others are exported abroad. There they are sorted both for reuse and recycling. Textiles that are recycled are today primarily repurposed for the upholstery of car door panels, and fibres are compressed for the production of mattresses and insulation.

– Today collected textiles are sorted manually. But it is difficult to repurpose clothes and other textiles, partly because a growing proportion consists of mixed materials. Textiles may be printed or contain chemicals that make them unsuitable or difficult to recycle. Those carrying out the sorting are skilled and work quickly, but industrial and automated sorting processes are required if large volumes of fabrics suitable for fibre-to-fibre recycling are to be processed, says Maria Elander.

Preserve the textile fibre in the cycle

For this reason, in the first phase of an IVL-led project, SIPtex was in 2015 charged with evaluating the potential for automated textile sorting. The project carried out a series of small-scale tests of techniques in which optical sensors were used to detect different types of materials. This is similar to the technology used for sorting packages, here deployed in a new context. SIPTex has shown that automated textile sorting has the potential to achieve both a high sorting rate and a high purity of sorted textile fractions.

– We want to preserve textile fibres for as long as is feasible, and as high up in the cycle as possible. Only when they can no longer be used to create new textiles, only then should they be repurposed as stuffing for car doors etc., says Maria Elander.

The results so far have been promising and the prospects for scaling up are encouraging. But if a circular economy is to be achieved the chain must function along its entire length. An active dialogue with both fashion companies and materials recyclers is crucial in this respect.

Hanna Ljungkvist

In the second phase of Mistra Future Fashion Hanna Ljugkvist works alongside Maria Elander with the IVL contributions to the second phase of Mistra Future Fashion. Here the emphasis is on policy issues and new business models to encourage textile re-use and recycling. The biggest challenges for efficient textile recycling, she says, lie in the recycling technology itself, the treatment of chemicals in textiles and the handling of mixed materials.

– Today there are almost no unadulterated textiles since fashion companies are not content with designing garments of a single fibre type, and it is difficult to ascertain the chemical content. For environmental and health reasons certain chemicals should be excluded from the loop, especially as these also impact the recycling process adversely, says Hanna Ljungkvist.

In the best of worlds recycling starts already at the design stage with the selection of materials that can be kept within the cycle on the road towards a closed textile loop.

– There are many obstacles and bottlenecks on the road to sustainable textile consumption. Right now it’s cheaper to grow new cotton than to use recycled textile fibres. The branch is complex and a transition will take time. But it is an exciting field and a lot is happening, both at grassroots level and in the industry as a whole.

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