The fashion industry is struggling with a huge waste problem. And even though recycling is totally normal to us, recycling clothes is not something that we necessarily consider. Donating your clothes is NOT recycling them (read my article on what happens to our donated clothes here). Sadly, only 1-10% of clothes that we donate is actually resold and a big part of it ends up in landfills or incinerators.
Though I believe that the most important way to change the fashion industry is for us consumers to buy less, I also think that a sustainable industry is a circular one. The production of textiles is draining our planet, while their destruction is polluting it. Circularity could drastically decrease both problems. Recycling plays a pivotal role in creating a circular system. Why then, are we not recycling?
The first stage of recycling clothes is sorting. Clothes can be made of numerous materials and there are often extra parts attached such as zippers and buttons. To properly recycle, these have to be sorted out by material and the extra parts need to be removed. This is manual labor, complicated by trivial things such as care-labels that have been cut out, which hold information about the clothes’ composition. Sadly, the costs of this first stage are already too high to be profitable. In addition, many clothes are made of multiple materials, like a polyester and cotton blend, which makes them very difficult to recycle properly. These garments are generally not recycled, simply because it takes too much effort (Design for Longevity).
For the clothes that do get recycled, there are basically two methods: mechanical and chemical recycling. Both can use different processes for different materials. From what I could find, mechanical recycling currently seems to be the used the most, as it can be profitable, for example when a garment is made from only one material, such as wool.
When natural fibers (mostly wool and cotton) are recycled, garments are shredded to tiny fibers that are spun to new threads. To properly do so, the material has to be sorted by color first. This way, it doesn’t have to be chemically treated. Recycle Wool is a pretty cool account to follow, to get an understanding of this process. Polyester is mechanically cut up into chips, after which it goes back into the traditional fiber making process (Fashion United 2018). Blended materials (which we wear A LOT), tend to be difficult to recycle (Design for Longevity). Also, shredding shortens fiber length of natural fibers, which makes the quality of the new threads a lot lower than the original (Chemistry World 2020). Mechanically recycled threads are therefore often used for lower quality products such as cleaning cloths. Fibers can be strengthened though, by supplementing virgin (new) fibers.
Chemical recycling provides better outcomes in terms of usability of the product. Cotton can be treated in such a way that it results in a pulp from which a new, qualitative thread can be spun. It’s much like the production of materials made of wood pulp, like Tencel or Viscose (StellaMcCartney). There are numerous researchers working on innovative ways to chemically recycle textiles (Deakin University Institute for Frontier Materials). The challenge is that different materials usually can’t be treated together. Another complication when recycling clothes made of mixed materials. Luckily, methods are being developed to chemically separate polyester from cotton and companies like Worn Again and Evrnu seem to be recycling polycotton blends into new, qualitative threads. At this point, chemical recycling is not yet scaled to industrial markets and is therefore not economically interesting yet (Chemistry World 2020).
The biggest problem with recycling our clothes, aside from the difficulties concerning mixed materials, currently seems to be the high costs. The sorting process is expensive and chemical recycling is not yet up to scale. Unfortunately, this results in a lack of demand for recycled materials, as new materials still come cheaper (Design for Longevity). Many people are working to optimize the process and overcome these difficulties. One amazing example is a ‘smart thread’, developed by the company Adetex. It carries a chip with information on a garments’ composition and can be inserted in any type of clothing. This could simplify the sorting process immensely.
Unfortunately, there is currently no ‘good way’ to recycle your clothes as a consumer. Make sure you take good care of your clothes, repair them when necessary and only buy what you need, preferably second hand. I do think that regulations could play an important role here. If the prices of recycled materials were lowered by subsidies and those of virgin materials raised by taxes, this could not only create a bigger demand, but also work as an incentive for business and research. This topic is on the European agenda (Policy Recommendations Fibersort, Circle Economy 2019), so hopefully we will start to see a shift in the right direction soon.
Close the Loop, Design for Longevity
Recycling Clothing the Chemical Way, Chemistry World (2020)