Fashion for Good: New report highlights potential circularity of textile recycling

A new report published by Fashion for Good – a global initiative to enforce sustainability in the textiles industry – and Circle Economy, has found that 494,000 tonnes (74 per cent) of low value post-consumer textiles is readily available and suitable for closing the loop in the clothing and textiles sector across six European countries.

fashion textilesThe report details the ‘Sorting for Circularity Europe’ project, and suggests that its results could point to ‘promising opportunities for recapturing value via mechanical and chemical recycling whilst ‘diverting textiles from downcycling, insulation or filing material and incineration’.

Further, Fashion for Good states that this opportunity represents a possible increased value of €74 million per year, when sorted textiles are reintroduced into the textiles value chain.

Additionally, the initiative may inform brands of the best circular design practises to adopt – as well as encourage textile collection agencies and organisations to build the necessary infrastructure. Alongside this it has the potential to better educate consumers on proper sorting and disposal practices.

Analysed across Europe, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and the United Kingdom, Fashion for Good says its project offers a ‘comprehensive’ and representative illustration of current textile waste composition in Europe.

Near Infrared (NIR) technology

The project analysed a total of 21 tonnes of post-consumer garments analysed using Near Infrared (NIR) technology. In order to take into consideration the seasonal changes in which garment types will be entering sorting facilities, ‘on-the-ground’ examinations were carried out over the time periods of atutumn/winter 2021 and spring/summer 2022.

Here, cotton was identified as the dominant fibre (42 per cent), followed by ‘material blends’ (32 per cent) – nearly half of which consisted of polycottons (12 per cent)

In terms of three characteristics, material composition, presence of disruptors – such as zippers and buttons – and colour, 21 per cent of the materials analysed were deemed suitable by Fashion for Good as feedstock for mechanical recycling. On the other hand, 53 per cent were considered suitable for chemical recycling.

It was concluded that this result gives rise to ‘significant opportunity for circularity’ because only two per cent of post consumer textiles are currently to fibre-to-fibre recycling.

Recommended actions

To maintain and develop sorting capacity, increased investments and policy changes are essential. Fashion for Good and Circle Economy have recommended certain actions, based on the project's findings.

Recommendations for all collectors, sorters, and recyclers:

  • Use the Sorters Handbook and the Sorting for Circularity Europe Report as guidance to conduct further trials and continue to build an understanding of fibre composition, sorting and recycling processes.
  • Provide open-access to trials and data that can support and direct investment into necessary infrastructure.
  • Update and utilise the Recyclers Database to build knowledge about mechanical and chemical recycling destinations.
  • Funnel further investments into new sorting technologies needed to scale the amount of textiles deemed suitable as feedstock for mechanical and chemical recycling.
  • Join digital platforms such as Reverse Resources and Refashion Recycle to connect supply with demand.

Recommendations for brands and manufacturers:

  • Commit to adopting circular design practices and incorporating recycled fibres into product portfolios as mandated by the upcoming Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation in the European Union.

Recommendations for policy makers:

  • Consider the Sorting for Circularity Europe Report and other relevant studies when developing toolkits, frameworks and legislation such as: the harmonised Extended Producer Responsibility framework, the Digital Product Passports pathway in textiles, and the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation.

Recommendations for consumers:

  • Take into account that purchase and disposal choices have an influence on the end of use of textiles. Consider extending the life of products through repairing, reselling and swapping.

Sorting for Circularity Europe Project

Fashion for Good created the project in response to overall recycling commitments and policies increasing in a move towards a more circular fashion economy. These developments are expected to increase demand for post-consumer textiles collection, sorting and recycling infrastructure across the EU.

The substantial investment required for the needed infrastructure will call for informed investments that carry an understanding of the post-consumer textiles available on the European market. Acknowledgement of ‘the business case for monetisation through recycling’ is also vital, the initiative warns.

In order to contribute to an informed investment strategy, Fashion for Good created the ‘Sorting for Circularity Europe Project’. The initiative aims to analyse the types of waste being generated, the quantities available as feedstock for recycling, and the ability to channel textile waste as feedstock for those with innovative solutions.

Another goal of the project is to ensure harmony between the sorting and recycling industry, potentially restoring a recycling market for unwanted textiles that could give rise to new revenue streams for sorters whilst unlocking demand for recyclers and brands.

Recycling infrastructure

Two further industry resources, developed by Circle Economy, have also been announced – the Recycler’s Database, a database mapping textile recycler’s capabilities and highlighting gaps between the sorting as well as the recycling industry, and a Sorters Handbook to guide the sorting industry.

The project has also given rise to two open digital platforms, Reverse Resources and Refashion Recycle, to match textile waste from sorters with recyclers. Currently, Reverse Resources have 39 active recyclers and 32 active waste handlers/sorters on their platform, while Refashion Recycle have 103 recyclers and 66 sorters onboarded onto their platform – reflecting ‘a large portion of the European circularity industry’.

Katrin Ley, Managing Director of Fashion for Good, said: “As fibre-to-fibre textile recycling commitments and policies increase, as well as the amount of textile waste collected, the infrastructure required to drive the move towards circular systems requires significant investment to scale.

“To make informed investment decisions, as well as assess the business case for monetisation through recycling, a deeper understanding of the characteristics of today’s European post-consumer textiles landscape is needed. This project lays the knowledge foundation that will enable key players to set into motion.”