My first internship in apparel engineering took place in Germany at Brinkmann GmbH & Co., better known for its men’s clothing line Bugatti. I remember the product manager proudly introducing a men’s coat made of 100 per cent polyester. He explained how easily the entire garment could be recycled after its use phase, how the whole piece could be melted and respun. At the time, I wasn’t sure who would want to purchase a 100 per cent polyester coat, nor could I appreciate how the manager had hit upon an innovative solution to an unforeseen problem of textile production. Today, more than 25 years later, one hundred percent polyester garments are common, but clothing recycling is not and the environmental impact of textile waste is only starting to be fully appreciated.
Clothing consumption has steadily increased over the last 30 years, to the degree that in 2013 the average consumer in North America purchased 64 garments per year at a rate of 1.2 garments per week. Each year, the average consumer produces 82 pounds of unwanted garments and textiles. Rather than be recycled, about 85 per cent (70 pounds) of these unwanted textiles end up in the residential waste stream. Of the 15 per cent (12 pounds) of the collected and diverted material, half is sold for reuse and the other half is recycled (Council for Textile Recycling, 2014). Although all textiles can be recycled (Celia Stall-Meadows and Cynthia Goudeau 2012), textile recycling has not kept pace.
When it comes to recycling, North Americans are capable of achieving high recovery rates. For example, in 201296 per cent of lead-acid batteries, 71 per cent of steel cans, 70 per cent of newspaper/mechanical papers, 55 per cent of aluminium beer and soda cans, 45 per cent of tires, and 34 per cent of glass containers were recovered and recycled in the Unites States (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2014). Compare these figures to the 7.5 per cent of textiles recycled. How can we increase the number of textiles that are recycled?
In Canada, donating clothes is a social norm. In a recent Ontario-wide survey, 91 per cent of respondents claimed to donate some of their clothing. However, they remain unaware about the possibilities of recycling textiles and are unsure what quality is acceptable for donation. As a result, most unwanted garments end up in the waste stream. Nonetheless, any kind of recycling requires first that material is collected and diverted. In terms of textiles, municipalities must get involved and no longer rely on charities and private collectors to collect clothing acceptable for reuse. More importantly, a larger infrastructure is required to recycle the collected materials.
Currently, there are two main ways to recycling textiles: mechanical and chemical. Companies that sort used clothing often can disassemble and rag clothing not good enough for reuse—this means the product is divided from its accessories (button and zippers) and cut into strips. This ragging process downcycles the product, and represents one part of mechanical recycling.
In the other option of mechanical recycling, fabrics are pulled apart in a process called shredding. Shredding shortens fibres. They lose their strength and their ability to be woven into new fabrics. However, such shredded materials can be used for “ nonwoven” fabrics, made directly from fibres without the creation of a yarn or the need for a weaving or knitting process. The material is either felted or bonded into a fabric. The Company Jasztex in Montreal is famous for its nonwoven fabrics, which they turn into insulation material, blankets, or “ Velpedi,” a product used under carpets (Caronga, 2012). Another company that transforms shredded denim material in an innovative way is the U.S.-based company Shear Composites. The company bonds the shredded fibres with synthetic material to produce countertops and work surfaces, plates, and even jewelry (Shear Composite, 2013).
Theoretically, every fibre can be chemically recycled. Nonetheless, the specific chemical recycling process depends on the fibre material. Natural fibres such as cotton, linen, or bamboo, all cellulosic based, can be dissolved just like paper. Each time the fibres shorten and weaken. Already after the first time of recycling cotton, fibres will be too short to be woven or knitted into a strong fabric, so weavers will mix the reclaimed fibres with virgin fibres to increase the fabric strength, just like recycled paper production. Another option to recycle cellulosic fabrics is an exhaustive procedure that extracts the cellulose, and dissolves and then spins it. Such processes of generating natural polymer fibres are widely practised for fibres such as Viscose, Modal, or Tencel (Lyocell). However, the extraction of the cellulosic material is much easier from an untreated plant than it is from a garment that is dyed and treated with various unknown chemicals.
The Austrian Company Lenzing, a global leader in the production of natural polymer fibres such as Tencel, has partnered with the Spanish retailer Inditex, owners of Zara. Lenzing recycles their off-cuts into a cotton Lyocell mix. Another company that made headlines in 2016 for cotton recycling was EVRNU, which partnered with LEVI STRAUSS & Co. to create the first jeans made from post-consumer cotton garment waste (LEVI STRAUSS, 2016). While reducing the need for cultivating a water-intensive plant like cotton is promising, little is known about the extent to which recycled cotton is used, or whether the start-up will be able to scale its innovation.
A different approach to recycling cotton fibres was taken in Canada. In 2013, Edmonton-based company Greys Paper Recycling Industries Ltd. began recycling shredded cotton and paper into pulp for new paper. While recycling natural fibres is possible, the scale remains small and its economic feasibility remains to be proven. Only three years later, the company filed for bankruptcy (Bill Mah, 2016).
Like plastic, there are various kinds and qualities of materials. In terms of textiles, each fibre has unique characteristics based on its molecular structure that must be taken into consideration when recycling. A chemical process that works for cotton jeans will not work for a hockey jersey.
The chemical process used to recycle cotton differs from the one used to recycle oil-based synthetic materials such as polyester, nylon, or acrylic because of their production process. In these synthetic materials, textile fibres are formed from linear polymers in a process called polymerisation. This endless spinning creates long chain molecules, which create strong fibres (Eberle et al., 2004). Theoretically it should be possible to re-melt every garment made of 100 per cent polyester or nylon into new recycled polyester or nylon. UNIFI, a US-based company, produces a high quality fibre called Repreve from recycled polyester yarns, made of 100 per cent recycled materials, including post-consumer plastic bottles, pre-consumer industrial waste, or a hybrid blend of both (Unifi, 2013).
In Canada, the fabric mill Victor Innovatex (Quebec), certified by the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, produces an Eco Intelligent Polyester (EIP) made of recycled polyester. These recycled fibres are produced with 80 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than virgin polyester production, and, equally important, maintain their quality when recycled. These recycled synthetic fibres use less energy and less material, and reduce waste compared to producing virgin fibres.
While choices for recycled fibres are slowly emerging, the government needs to take action to highlight and support efforts. Currently, no standard labelling exists to qualify the extent of recycled material in fabric. More problematically, the definition of recycled textile material remains supplier-specific. Labelling laws in Canada do require garments to label their composition, but the government does not enforce the degree to which recycled materials are actually used to make the fibre. For example, a t-shirt can claim to be made of 100 per cent recycled polyester, but this polyester could be comprised of only a small portion of recycled material. Moreover, companies are not required to claim the source for this percentage of recycled material: it could come from plastic bottles or some material other than textiles—thereby ignoring the very material we need to be recycling.This makes it difficult for customers to compare and evaluate products. This ambiguity even makes the choice difficult for apparel producers seeking environmentally responsible fabric. Standard labelling would help consumers and producers alike recognize the most environmentally responsible fabric choices.
Twenty-five years ago, Brinkman’s product manager actively sought to produce a 100 per cent polyester coat. The contemporary ambition for garment production today is often different. Today, a winter coat can consist of several shell fabrics and different linings, various zippers and buttons, and so on, each ingredient made of different materials requiring a different chemical recycling procedure. Before a garment can be re-melted, its various materials must be identified and separated. This means the chemical recycling of a garment requires a lot of work. Adding to the challenge: many fabrics are made of different fibres.Fibres are often blended to achieve special optical effects or to improve performance by maximizing the beneficial properties of each fibre type (Eberle et al., 2004). For example, socks are often made with a fibre blend of natural fibres like cotton and a synthetic fibre like polyester. While consumers want socks to be breathable and moisture-resistant, which is achieved through natural fibres, they still want them to be strong and last, which requires synthetic material. (Socks are often made of 70 or 80 per cent cotton and 20 or 30 per cent of polyester.)
Recycling fibre blends presents a unique recycling challenge. The Swedish fashion retailer Hennes & Mauritz (H&M), which operates more than 80 stores in Canada and is on a nation-wide expansion course, is driven to become the most sustainable fashion retailer in the world. In 2017, the H&M Foundation offered $5.8 million in support to the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) to develop a chemical technology that recycles blended textiles, a task which currently can only be accomplished mechanically (H&M Foundation, 2017). A few months after the announcement, a research group at Aalto University (Finland), announced its success recovering cotton/polyester and spinning this blend back into usable fibers. This substantial progress calls to attention the next set of challenges. As the researchers explain, the chemical know-how to recycle blended materials is one thing; the bigger challenge is to know what chemicals were used in the production process at the start, especially because they are not labeled (SIMONE HASLINGER/HERBERT SIXTA, 2017). In other words, each garment has its own chemical history, which affects its lifecycle.
The history of each garment is only becoming more complex as the textile industry continues to embrace globalization. For instance, 97 per cent of all garments consumed in the US are produced offshore (The American Apparel & Footwear Association, 2014). And while the North American solution to unwanted textiles was to export them to other countries, in many places this is no longer an option. China, the biggest producer of clothing, has an import embargo for used textiles, as do more than 30 countries in Africa (Rivoli, 2005). Just recently there is a huge call from East Africa to implement and enforce import embargos against used clothing. Canadian manufacturers must consider the kinds of products or fabric material that can be made with these “ reclaimed fibres” locally.
Twenty-five years since the first big wave of environmental consciousness hit the fashion industry, textile recycling in Canada remains in its incipient stages. Different fibres require different kinds of recycling, and each fibre carries its own peculiar exception. While all textiles could be mechanically recycled, the reuse possibilities for the recycled material are limited. For example, textiles made of cotton can be mechanically ragged and then reused, while polyester can be mechanically ragged, but then no longer reused because of its unique fibre characteristics.
While all textiles can be chemically recycled, and then respun into new fibres, possibilities are limited in Canada due to the limited number of fabric mills. Recycling textiles are further complicated due to garments made of different materials, fibre blends, and the use of chemicals. The industry is racing to develop innovative technology and recycling processes for textiles, and while it explores solutions for economic feasibility and scale, the government should mandate labels and enforce standards.
The past few years in Canada have shown an increased awareness about the issue of textile waste, and have reiterated the need for a large-scale infrastructural change to handle the growing volume of textiles that end up in landfills each year. Maybe Canada’s solution won’t be to make recycled fabrics, but we nonetheless must develop innovative and sustainable solutions that deal with textile waste locally rather than exporting the problem abroad. Textile recycling offers an opportunity to create jobs locally, while textile recycling technology would put Canada at the forefront of innovation worldwide.