Challenges & Opportunities
Resources are limited while the planet is being buried with waste from our consumption. What better reason is there to consider recycled materials, especially, since the quality is now very good and the price is sometimes even less than its virgin equivalent. What is the idea behind post-industrial and post-consumer recycling? What options deserve some serious consideration? And what happens to garments (virgin and recycled) at the end of the life-cycle? What are the facts you need to know about recycled materials such as polyester/PET, polyamide 6/nylon, wool, down, and pineapple leaves-leather. Learn more about the value chains and relevant certifications such as the Global Recycled Standard (GRS), Global Claim Standard (RCS), Intertek Recycled PET, Green Mark, SCS Recycled content, ICEA, and Plastica Seconda Vita.
The April 2016 Focus Topic: “Recycled? Challenges & Opportunities” provides the facts and figures and outlines the questions you should be asking.
Recycling: Making new from old
Recycling as per definition, is the reuse of used goods and materials as raw materials for new products. The basic idea behind recling is the sustainable use of resources.
Post-Industrial Recycling ( = Recycling in production)
The return of waste materials generated during production to the same or some other production cycle, for example: the cutting or clipping remnants from fabric and garment manufacturing.
Post-Consumer Recycling ( = Recycling of materials by consumer type)
New items are produced from used materials. Unwanted or unusable recyclables are collected and processed for re-use.
Extending the useful life
The period of useful life can be extended through repairs and proper care while in use. In everyday language, some say upcycling/recycling during use. Although prolonging the useful life corresponds to the basic concept of recycling, which is the sustainable management of resources and a positive eco-balance, it is not recycling.
Taking virgin products directly into recovery streams
It has been discovered, that in some cases virgin PET bottles are directly fed into recycling streams to become “recycled” polyester fabric.
Energetic “Recycling” - using waste as fuel
Most fabrics can be used as fuel to generate energy. This is a contradiction of the sustainability aspect of recycling in so far as these materials could continue to be used in other ways. According to current knowledge, hazardous substances, like PFC’s are better kept out of the recycling stream.
Closing the loop: second life for garments
Sustainable Management of resources requires:
- The useful life of the material to be as long as possible (repair, downcycle/2nd hand)
- The manufacturing process to be designed to produce less waste, cuttings etc.
- The choice of recycable materials
The recycling of impure fabrics (blends) poses a more technical challenge and thereby has a negative effect on the ecobalance. The recycling of mono materials is far easier than fabric blends. Waste generated during manufacturing is more easily returned to the production process.
- A consideration of the energy/ecological footprint required for for the recycling, that is, for the collection, transport and processing of the recycables
In terms of sustainability, the use of local cycles (collection, transport, and processing) and the sensible use of transport routes (no empty runs) are important considerations. If, for example, the recycling of PET materials requires transport routes to or from Asia, which would not be the case when using new raw materials, the relative effect on the eco-balance becomes moot and there is no real value improvement. Nevertheless, this option does conserve valuable raw materials. Ideally, the energy used in recycling is generated by a renewable source
Every year 716,000 tons of textiles are recycled in Germany alone. Old clothes are collected, sorted, processed, and sold. Approximately 50% of the recovered textiles are recycled as second hand clothing (re-use). Almost 18% (mostly blends) of the unwearable items is processed for seat stuffing for the auto and furniture industries, whereas 16% is used to make cleaning cloths (downcycling). Only about 5% can be used to produce new fibers and fabrics (cradle-to-cradle principle). Pure polyester and polyamide garments can be recycled again into textiles. The pure wools and cottons can be „pulled“ into the state of fiber and re-spun into yarn, however, these yarns of a lower quality in comparison to new fibers because of the shorter staple (fibers) lengths.
Renaissance of PET & Co: Recycled materials
Producers of recycled raw material *
An individual decision: Virgin or recycled material?
Polyester & polyamid
Processing polyester or polyamide changes not the material and, consequently, the quality of the material,remains comparable. This is true to the extent that even experts cannot tell whether the quality is virgin or recycled without seeing the transaction certificate. In contrast, the color may be critical. It is difficult or even impossible to bleach the colorful PET bottles, therefore blue or green bottles will not turn to a lighter color, but only a darker one.
The recycling process for wool shortens the length of the fibers. Therefore, it may be the case that the haptic is not as soft and the material tends to pill more. Also wools retain their color, which means that a jacket made from a red woolen sweater will have to have some (partly or entirely) red fiber content. This reduces the color spectrum, but at the same time provides the advantage of not having to dye the yarn and thereby, saves resources.
The performance of recycled down primarily depends on the grade of the raw material (and the form of chemical processing). The recycled down normally holds the same quality as the virgin down had.
Eco-footprint: Material, water, energy & CO²
This is the most difficult section because generalizations are close to impossible and accurate plus valid statements are needed (but not often supplied). Assistance is provided for such assessments by ClimatePartner, MyClimate or the HIGG Index among others. Besides the procurement and material costs, it is the transport routes that play a major role in the assessment. If the paths between the collection point and the production sites are too long and/or not efficiently used, the impact is negative on the carbon footprint and the eco-balance. The critical questions for every recycling assessment concern when to measure the water and energy consumption and the CO² values. Nontheless, the material itself remains a resource too. If PET is recycled this means that less crude oil is needed.
Facts about PET
Annually, 90 billion liters of water is filled into plastic bottles worldwide. In the USA, every year approximately 40 billion plastic bottles are thrown away. In Germany, at least 800 million PET bottles are in circulation. 32% of the world‘s annual production of plastic is simply discarded into the environment, with much of it ending up in the oceans! Approximately 100 million tons of plastic trash has already been dumped into the world‘s oceans and currently, 8 million additional tons are being added each year. That equates to about 5 supermarket bags full of plastic particles along every 30 cm of coast line. The area of floating waste in the Pacific, known as the „Great Pacific Garbage Patch,“ is now estimated to be the size of North America. It consists of a million pieces of plastic per square kilometer. If we do not respond, there will be more plastic particles swimming in the sea than there are fish. A plastic bottle needs about 450 years to decompose; a fishing net can even take up to 600 years.
- About 40% of the PET bottles used in Europe are now reprocessed into fibers.
- The mountains of trash in our environment and in the world‘s oceans is thereby reduced daily by 10 million PET bottles. The manufacture of yarns from PET recycling would improve the energy and CO2 balance from 30-50% compared to processes that rely on fossil petroleum.
- A common fleece jacket can be produced from about 20-25 PET bottles.
- As a result, the non-renewable resource crude oil could be conserved. Increased PET bottle recycling can reduce the trash mountains by about 3.6 billion bottles per year, thereby saving nearly 200,000 tons of primary raw materials.
Interim conclusion: PET recycling is important and necessary because the recoverable waste is a potential resource for new materials.
Important points to keep in mind
Main certifications related to recycling (International scale) *
Questions to ask yourself and your suppliers
- Is a recycled material available that meets my technical requirements?
- Is the standard certifi cation shown in the label traceable?
- Are LCA (Life Cycle Analysis) data or any other proven data provided to compare the ecological footprint of the recycled vs. the virgin material?
- Am I aware of the recycling streams available for the collection and transport and am I knowledgeable about material and waste management regulations?
- Have I taken into consideration the resources (energy/CO²/water/transport) needed to recover the material? Is the standard certifi cation shown in the label traceable?
- Will my new product follow a circular design to ensure the various components used in the product can be returned to a recycling stream?
- Can the recycled material be recovered again at its end of use?