Nothing to waste. Closing the Loop.
Do we have anything to waste? Reason says no, reality tells another story: We do – and do so dramatically. One could think, there is no need for numbers to be discussed, as each piece is superfluous.
Today's production is tomorrow’s waste.
According to the Federal Office for the Environment in Germany, 0.8% of the extracted petroleum is used for textiles1. On average, after around 1 year2 to 3.3 years – in the case of clothing3 – garments are considered no longer fashionable or worn out by consumers. “Globally, around 56 million tonnes of clothing are purchased annually, and this is expected to rise to 93 million tonnes by 2030 and 160 million tonnes by 2050.”4 Subsequently, 5.8 Million tons of used textiles turn to waste per year, according to estimations5 . Some waste remains visible in the environment. Other waste disappears out of view: hidden on landfills, floating in the ocean, exported to other countries, transformed into energy and dust… But: Nothing is bio-degraded, only transferred to a different form.
Not too long ago, people possessed only very few, countable items. The wearer felt responsible for them. The items were maintained carefully and repaired many times before the end of use. Goods were simply more of a luxury than today. But this attitude of care and repair got lost over previous generations. Starting around 1850, industrialisation led to cheaper and cheaper manufacturing of raw materials and more complex products. Unfortunately, the recycling of products at their end-of-life was and is too often not part of the calculation. Over time, the amount of product types and the produced quantities became so huge that today’s mass-production would cost us dearly if we just opened our eyes and took on full responsibility for what we produce and consume.
Production and consumption evolved further and further in the industrialized countries and at the source of production, a new industry started: An industry of recycling tools and infrastructure; but these recycling tools and infrastructure were not exported with the (consumer) goods and waste to the non/less-industrialized, poorer countries. Boundaries as political frontiers, geological obstacles and even other planets do not limit mankind and its waste any longer, but only complicate recycling and closing the loop. Life, health, food chains, animals, the entire plant... are in danger.
Basically, we know better. Efficiency is a driving force behind all industries. Valuable goods are normally expensive and therefore used consciously. But although everybody wishes to live in a beautiful, healthy environment and although time is ticking, nature seems not to have any price tag.
With the Focus Topic “Nothing to waste. Closing the Loop” in December 2020, PERFORMANCE DAYS follows up on previous steps and initiatives. Technical expertise on waste-management and the textile industry are needed as well as an understanding of the end-consumer and the support of political institutions in installing a system of closing the loop beyond local borders.
We have nothing to waste: Neither resources nor time!
The circle of life. A (Never-)Ending Story?
The life-cycle of a product starts with its concept or design, and is followed by production, sales, use (with or without maintenance to make it more durable / longer in use)... Somewhere along the life cycle of the products, it loses its value for the user and ends up as waste (on an official disposal site or in nature). If the product remains unused, it is called a ‘lose end’ whereas the end can also be a new beginning if the loop is closed. To compost, biodegrade and recycle a material, there are different ways to keep it in use and thereby extend the life-cycle/loop. But not all three options are relevant for all kinds of materials in the same way.
In addition to the close loop principle, "Cradle-to-Cradle" is a specific term used to describe clothing in a cycle. Instead of afterwards considering the options of how the material can be recycled at the end of its use, the best composition of the material is considered in advance in order to return it to the closed loop . The materials are thus spared of any unnecessary recycling processes.
Biological Cycle: Compost/Cradle-to-Cradle
Microorganisms (heterotrophic bacteria, actinomycetes, fungi, protozoa) break down organic substances to CO² and biomass without any toxic residues (and within a defined period of time). Therefore all compost is always also biodegradable. (Industrial processes can optimize factors such as temperature, water and oxygen and thereby be more efficient and/or faster than natural or household composts.) Household and industry compost alike are closing the loop as: Biomass serves as ground to grow organic substances; these substances can be processed technically to a product and later on returned to biomass which is again ground to grow new organic substances. This natural cycle is therefore often referred to as ‘cradle-to-cradle’.
Source: LYCRA_Sustainable Fiber White Paper_07_28_2020.pdf, page 1, 14.09.2020
(Semi-biological) Cycle: (Bio-)Degradation
Microorganisms, mechanical friction and light break down substances to CO², biomass and potentially also toxic residues (within a defined period of time). Some definitions exclude toxic residues by adding that it breaks down to ‘water, CO², methane and biomass/minerals only’. Temperature, water and the amount of oxygen are further factors in the process of biodegradation.
Please note, that oxo-degradation should be avoided in any case!
Source: LYCRA_Sustainable Fiber White Paper_07_28_2020.pdf, page 1, 14.09.2020
Technical Cycle: Recycling
A substance is reused. This might also mean that by burning a technical product, it is turned into biomass and energy. The term recycling alone does not inform if any toxic residues remain or emerge unless the definition states so. Even after thermic recycling, many toxic substances can remain as dust and ash.
Source: Plastikatlas_2019_3._Auflage.pdf, page 17, 14.09.2020
Recycle. The ups and downs
IS RECYCLING SUSTAINABLE?
- Less new resources
- Use of existing resources
To recycle or reuse something, suitable substances must be collected and eventually processed. Often the motivation is that the substances and/or their making are expensive. Therefore, it can lower costs and benefit nature not to work with virgin (or conventional) material. The two levels of reuse are:
It means to devalue the material.
Example: (Old) textiles without (seemingly) any use are devalued to produce cleaning rags, filling material or energy. 6 7
It means to improve or upgrade the material exactly the same kind of material again so simply from old to new. Whether a product is upcycled, is subjective and depending on each individual.
Waste that is exported to certified waste treatment sites in foreign countries is considered in Germany and probably more countries as recycled whereas the certificate and the control system of the destination might remain insufficient. 9
Even the European Parliament concludes: “Half of the plastic collected for recycling is exported to be treated in countries outside the EU. Reasons for the exportation include the lack of capacity, technology or financial resources to treat the waste locally. Previously, a significant share of the exported plastic waste was shipped to China, but with the country’s recent ban on plastic waste imports, it is increasingly urgent to find other solutions. The low share of plastic recycling in the EU means big losses for the economy as well as for the environment. It is estimated that 95% of the value of plastic packaging material is lost to the economy after a short first-use cycle.” 10
Renew. Same-same, but different
Products consist often of many materials which are blended:
… such as plant and animal fibres that are renewable, compostable and/or biodegradable, e.g. organic cotton, wool, hemp, nettle, flax, linen, kapok, silk,...
Man-made, regenerated fibres
… from natural resources that are renewable, compostable and/or biodegradable, e.g. lyocell, modal, viscose, cupro,..
Synthetic or recyclable man-made fibres
… e.g. polyester, polyamide
Synthetic protein fibres
e.g. milk fibre, spider silk…
A blend of natural fibres might compost or biodegrade also as fibre mix, but most other materials and fibres need to be processed individually in order to be recycled to new yarn. A jacket contains elements such as buttons, zippers and fabrics that can be multilayers combining different materials or/and even one single yarn can be composed of several different fibres as a fibre blend. Even though research and development has and is working on technical solutions to sort and separate materials automatically, sorting at the end of the lifecycle is often only possible as it involves time- and cost-expensive manual work. (Interesting news on this background: A group of chemical engineers at the University of Hong Kong claim to be able to break down cotton-polyester blends to pure polyester with the help of the fungi Aspergillus niger but the question is if and to which extent this technology will be successfully implemented into the industry.) 11
Pre-sorted by construction. Mono-components
"Only one, unique, single, from one component."
Consequently, to reduce time and costs, another approach is to design garments in a way that one garment is designed by only one material. Thereby only mixed-component garments needed to be sorted. If an entire piece consists of only one substance, it can be called: Mono-component/material. 12
Mono-Components can be recycled easier and with less effort as no fibers need to be separated from each other. Down feathers retain a relatively constant quality. Fibres become shorter during fibre recycling and thereby limit the options, as the quality might drop to such an extent where the reuse might no longer be possible. Polyester and polyamide can be recycled almost endlessly, but the colouring processing is like all other fibres difficult. It might not be rational or possible to bleach recycled fibres. The original colour remains often (part of) the new recycled material or it will be superimposed with a darker colour – black in most cases. For the same reason, colourful blue or green PET bottles will not turn to a lighter colour, but only a darker one.
Utopia and Reality
Textile Exchange talks in its “Key 2019 Takeaways” about 25,487 tons of recycled cotton, 1,453 tons recycled wool, 2,7 tons recycled downs, 2,959 tons recycled nylon.13 But despite these numbers and the previously-named options, other reports show that only 15.1% stay temporarily in the loop and less than 0.1% stay in the textile loop. The BBC also refers to less than 1% in 2015.14 So over 99.9% ends up as waste.15 The question is: Why is the percentage of waste almost 100% - is the loop more loose/open than closed?
The state of circular textile systems in 2018
* Recycled materials percentage of total uptake round from 6,4%
** Collection: EPA industry estimated recycling rate, 2017
Textile collecting may sound like a standardised system, but it is carried out by multiple parties, among them NGOs (e.g. Red Cross), private (e.g. clothing brands16 or textile producers such as wear2wear)17 or the public sector (e.g. Munich Waste Management known as AWM) initiatives. It is generally a non-deposit system and therefore based on the individual motivation of the consumer to return worn out clothes. Surprisingly, pre- (0.59%) and post-consumer textile (0.01%) are not the majority input for new textiles, but non-textiles such as PET bottles (5.8%)18 – a fact also underlined by the next chart. In simple words: Almost no consumer-worn, old textile is reborn as new textile.
Breakdown of recycled materials
Non-textile inputs seem to perform better, maybe as some countries have established a system where the user/consumer pays a deposit on top of the bottle. As the deposit is repaid when the bottle is returned to the shop/system, many bottles find their way back and thereby can remain in the (closed) loop. It is definitely necessary that also PET bottles are recycled, nonetheless, “eventually, recycled needs to be from post-consumer textiles and not just plastic packaging”. 19
Could a system of deposit help? Or could the recycling costs be included into the production costs of the producer/supplier? Or maybe both? Or another option? It seems to make rational sense that all sides are motivated to support circularity. The producer would be aware if the recycling was part of the calculation. The consumer would return the items (to the shop like the PET bottles) if it was beneficial (deposit, voucher, free repair service…). The recycling industry would operate in the sector if it were profitable. (which is more and more difficult as the quantity of the collected clothes becomes less and less due to fast-fashion and contamination as a result of less plastic bag protection of the garments in the containers20, while the quantity becomes larger and larger and the market for second hand clothes becomes more saturated and (therefore) more demanding.)21 22 Last but not least, of course international political support would be helpful, as waste does not stop at borders.
Circularity. Internal or external – local or global
"Circularity – a recurring recycling cycle of raw materials, which ideally never ends."
From a product the same product is produced again
From a product another product is made
In order that a used PET bottle becomes a bottle again or a fibre is recycled to a fibre again, each industry needs to close the cycle of their products internally, But in reality, a product doesn't always end up where it was produced.
60% of the UK used textiles are collected and exported for the reuse and recycling in foreign countries (41% Sub-Saharan Africa (19% Ghana), 25% Europe (10% Poland), 14% Asia and Oceania (12% Pakistan), 11% Non-EU Eastern Europe (10% Ukraine), 7% Middle East and North Africa (4% UAE), 2% Others)23. In Germany approximately 50% of the [716,00 tons/year] 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 automotive and furniture industries, whereas 16% is used to make cleaning cloths (downcycling). Only about 5% can be used to produce new fibres 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 condition of fibre and re-spun into yarn, however, these yarns are of a lower quality in comparison to new fibres because of the shorter staple (fibre) lengths.
The fate of UK used textiles collected for re-use and recycling
www.wrap.org.uk/sites/files/wrap/Textiles%20market%20situation%20report%202019.pdf, page 12, 14.09.2020
Guideline: Possible impulses how to close the loop
- Create closed loop/recycling streams starting with the design to turn 100% used, old clothes to 100% new material
a) renewable/compostable/cradle-to-cradle mono-components and blends OR
b) recyclable mono-component.
- Ask fabric & accessory producers for material made out of recycled worn clothes to increase the demand in recycled materials.
- Label products in a way that can’t be removed (cut out by the user) to facilitate material identification and recycling it after use.
- Inform and motivate the customer (how) to return the old garments cloth.
- Create collecting systems or build up co-operations with waste recycling companies..
- Enlarge the time of use by: Producing clothes that last and realize ways to keep clothes longer in the cycle by repairing, offering to lease clothes,...
- Use post-consumer waste (generated during manufacturing e.g. while cutting) by returning it to the production process or providing it to other users
Fabric & accessory producers
- Use post-consumer waste (generated during manufacturing e.g. while cutting) by returning it to the production process.
- Enable and support brands in their targets (above) by supplying knowledge and material.
User / Consumer
- Buy less! If you buy something “new” then consider second hand and always choose the more sustainable clothes, so the one that can be used for a longer time with regards to material quality and being fashionable and /or is easy to recycle or compost.
- Repair more.
- Keep material identification attached to the garment to facilitate recycling at the end of the lifecycle.
- Return clothes to collecting points for textiles and into the (right) recycling system.
Potential for new industries:
- Collect data globally (as “Circularity Wikipedia”) , make it transparent and accessible to everybody. Create guidelines which inform about the multiple options. Analyse the location of production sites, of its use and its end-of-use. Calculate the (energy/CO²/water/transport) resources considering the locations.
- Label/certification system LCA (Life Cycle Analysis): data or any other proven data provided to compare diverse materials in respect of its ecological footprint of the recycled vs. the virgin material (like Textile Exchange or HIGG index) before nominating and using them for the product clothing.
“In the face of growing demand for raw materials from textile manufacturers, fibre-to-fibre recycling presents a potential opportunity for a new set of end markets.”24 Therefore, this potential should be supported by political authorities in a way that it can be solved globally:
- Recycled material should be cheaper than virgin material (even though for recycling more effort might be needed and is therefore more expensive, as the limited resource crude oil can be avoided.
- Potentially limit thermic recycling/downcycling to encourage more upcycling.
- “Support for, and by F2F [fiber-2-fiber] recycling process developers and those in the textile merchant supply chain, in securing finance for process scale-up and commercialisation”.25
- Recycled product labelling: Consider the energy/ecological footprint required for the product and its recycling (collection, transport and processing of the recyclables) not only the packaging, but for the product itself; or “a charge on producers [...] per garment, generating revenue that can be used to invest in clothing collection and sorting [...]”26.
- The quality of donated textiles has decreased over time, with fast fashion singled-out as a key factor27 . As a solution, fast fashion and sustainable fashion could be taxed differently with regard to sustainability of the garment.
- Set international standards for labelling materials so that the material can be recycled internationally. This may include to standardize28 the definitions for the different types of waste (ISO-norm?) internationally not regionally (currently it is even different within one city).
- Take local responsibility where waste was produced instead of shipping waste to places far away from its origin (producer and/or consumer) which makes it easy to not to see and to deny responsibility.
- Set international mandatory standards for waste burning facilities (high-class air/water… filters and reasonable burning-energy efficiency) as waste is internationally exported.
Within one year from 2015 to 2016, the global use of recycled polyester increased by 56%29. This trend shows how important it is to improve fiber-to-fiber recycling and consequently to install recycling facilities in all countries.
- “Improvements in post-consumer textiles collection and sorting process”. 30
- “Introduction of automation to increase accuracy and decrease cost in the sorting process. [Although still in development,] automation may also lower garment preparation cost (removal of zippers, etc.)”. 31
- “Development and communication of feedstock specifications through collaboration between textile merchants and F2F recycling process developers”. 32
- Can second hand garment prices also be dependent on the fact if the buyer region has installed a waste recycling management system for the end of use (energy recycling?) but with appropriate standards (energy efficiency, air/water filters etc.)?
A special thank you for the support to …
- Lisa-Marie Strasser, Schöffel who wrote her bachelor thesis “Herausforderungen der Kreislaufwirtschaft von Mono-Component-Sportswear Bekleidung” in cooperation with PERFORMANCE DAYS on this subject as well as the “Guidelines for the Apparel Industry” which is available to download.
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation represented by Freya
- Textile Recycling Association represented by Alan Wheeler (Director)
- Textile Exchange represented by Kaitlyn Kellogg (Communications and Events Coordinator)
Ecological use of the RENU fibre in comparison to new/virgin polyester fibre. renu-project.com/, 14.09.2020
Recycling process of Resyntex, www.resyntex.eu/the-project, 14.09.2020
Collects used garments for recycling and does research on how to separate materials e.g. how to separate nylon/elasthane into the various components/fibre (project Re:Mix). Moreover Texaid is currently working on projects as fibersort, dissolving on demand and Texcycling. 38
is a cooperation of material producers and brands such as e.g. Schoeller, Sympatex, Pyua, Texaid, Climatex and Primaloft who target a closet loop by producing 100% new textiles out of 100% old textiles. 39
Circularity by wear2wear, www.wear2wear.org/de/, 14.09.2020
is focused on separating fibre blends. The 2005 founded, British company recycles poly-cotton (polyester and cotton mix) or cellulose-cotton-mix or PET bottles to fibre. 40
Recycling process by Worn Again, wornagain.co.uk/, 14.09.2020