Textile Waste and the challenge of trying to recycle it

At the beginning of 2024, the resourcing industry was rocked by the news that Swedish circular company Renewcell was filing for bankruptcy. The company had an advanced chemical textile recycling processes, a low carbon footprint and was a circular economy poster child. On paper, it ticked all the right boxes to showcase how a truly circular business could operate. 

Unfortunately, they ended up with crates of fibre sheets they couldn’t sell. The orders coming in simply weren’t enough to sustain the business. Now it’s up for sale with the hope that the technologies will be enough to attract investors. The problem is that unless investors can also secure buying contracts, there isn’t going to be a happy ending.

It’s a harsh reminder that even the best intentions and most advanced technologies are not enough for business success. And that’s really at the heart of it. Too often environmental causes have been the domain of NPO’s, relying on donations for funding. They operate on the premise that people want to do good and will get behind a good cause, even if it costs more. But they don’t always take into consideration other influencing factors.

Even though the business case for the circular economy exists, it’s still proving difficult to implement. The linear economy is so entrenched in supply chains, marketing and consumer behaviour. Changing just one aspect of business doesn’t filter through to other areas unless there is a concerted and deliberate effort to align with circular economy principals. The textile industry is a prime example of this.

High fashion, fast fashion – what should the focus be on?

Like Renewcell, many R&D projects involving textile recycling are high profile with leading brands such as Adidas, Speedo, Northface and Levi’s. Their efforts are admirable and no doubt make an impact, but their products make up a very small percentage of the fashion items being produced.

By far the largest volumes of clothes being manufactured are not for these elite brands. Instead, it’s mass production fuelling even higher volumes of waste. India and China are producing and shipping tonnes of clothes globally on a daily basis.

Their motto of making fashion affordable to everyone, may sound like a good idea, but it comes at a cost. Most of these fashion items are made from various types of polyester combined with other virgin resources. This means that before they’re even shipped there’s already a high environmental impact. Something that’s conveniently ignored by online fast fashion retailers as they relentlessly promote bargain sales.

Despite the trend of younger generations to shop at thrift stores and buy second hand clothing, it doesn’t come close to making a dent in all the new clothing that’s streaming into the market. To make matters worse, because there are always new fashion trends to follow, volumes of perfectly wearable clothes are discarded in landfill because individuals simply don’t like them anymore.

M&S together with Oxfam, recently announced an initiative aimed at curbing this waste. They’re offering customers a postal return service to donate unwanted clothes. What’s impressive about this initiative is that it’s not just targeting clothes that can be resold, it’s also asking for unwearable clothes to be recycled. The idea is the divert textiles from landfill or energy recovery, as most consumers admit to simply throwing stained or torn clothing into regular dustbins.

What’s the real issue with textile waste?

Statistics highlight that the world produces 92 million tonnes of textile waste a year, of which only 1% is recycled or reused. Alarmingly 60% of textiles are made from plastic fibres, meaning clothing is contributing approximatiely 62 million tonnes of plastic waste per year. We all know how seemingly insurmountable the plastic pollution problem is and textile waste is making it even worse.

Collections and processing of textiles do not make up a significant portion of the recycling industry. What’s more concerning is that the few companies that are recycling textiles are not located in the same countries where mass production is taking place. Why would buyers consider more expensive recycled fibres that have to be shipped when local textiles are being produced for a fraction of the cost? 

Textile recycling solutions?

Perhaps it’s time to reconsider the business case for textile recycling. Specifically in terms of what recycled textiles are competing against in the marketplace. Regrettably environmental ideals don’t seem to be strong enough reasons to change.

So what will alter the desire for profit and change the habits entrenched by consumerism? How do recyclers convince the supply chain to buy their materials instead? Are there even incentives that buyers might find attractive? These are major obstacles to overcome.

In the meantime, the volumes of clothing entering the market continue to grow. If production can’t be throttled, can consumers be convinced to buy less? Should more effort be put into developing the second-hand clothing market? The re-use statistics are so low that it’ll take little effort to quadruple them.

But then again who would be willing to drive this?  It’s not something that’s the focus of lawmakers and the recycling and resourcing industry already have their hands full trying to keep up with other recycling demands.

I guess we’re back to the lessons from the Lorax. “UNLESS someone cares a whole lot, nothing’s going to change, it’s not.” The textile waste and recycling challenge is going to require a committed group of creative people to drive solutions. Solutions that include collaborating with multiple stakeholders to deliver a strong business case. We all know it’s needed, but who will be willing to take on the challenge?