In order to work towards a more sustainable future for the fashion and textile industry, recycling facilities must be further scaled up, requiring large investments. But how can investors know whether these investments are worth it?
To provide insight into this, sustainability organisation Fashion for Good, in collaboration with the Dutch Circle Economy foundation, conducted research last year into the business potential of the collection, sorting and recycling of textiles. A study in six European countries shows that 494,000 tons of post-consumer textiles are available and usable for recycling there alone. According to Fashion for Good, converting that textile into new fibres can generate 74 million euros annually.
Sorting capacity in European countries shows room for upscaling
The study was conducted in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and the UK. The volume of textiles collected differs greatly in these locations. In Germany, for example, approximately one million tons of textiles are collected annually, while in the UK approximately 650 thousand tons are. In the Netherlands and Belgium this amount is considerably lower, at almost 200 thousand and 100 thousand tons respectively. Not all that textile is suitable for recycling: some garments are still of too high quality and therefore re-wearable, while others are too dirty to be reused.
What also becomes clear from the research report is that the local sorting capacity is not always equal to the amount of textile collected. In Germany, for example, compared to one million tons of textiles, there is a sorting capacity of 191 thousand tons of textiles. In the Netherlands, the sorting capacity is slightly higher than the amount of collected textiles - but much of that capacity is used for German textiles. It is clear that there is room for upscaling.
Cotton dominant material in collected textiles
The composition of textiles that cannot be reused in their original form or are of low quality was also analysed. In total, 21 tons of post-consumer textiles were examined using infrared technology. A significant portion, 42 percent, was found to be made of cotton, possibly with a small amount of elastane. 32 percent was made of mixed materials, of which almost half (12 percent of the total) were made of a combination of cotton and polyester.
Based on material, the presence of 'disruptive elements' such as zippers and buttons and the colour of the textile, it was determined that 21 percent of the materials would be suitable for mechanical recycling and 53 percent for chemical recycling. The precondition for this is that it is attractive enough to remove zippers, buttons and other parts that complicate the recycling process. Otherwise, the proportion that is suitable for chemical recycling is much lower.
Earn money from recycled materials
The revenue of 74 million euros from the reuse of those fibres was calculated by Fashion for Good on the basis of potential prices per kilo for the recycled material. However, in order to earn real money from the materials, according to the organisation, significant investments are still needed to scale up recycling technologies, automate sorting processes and, for example, make it easier to remove zippers and buttons.
At the same time, the potential will continue to grow. The group said the amount of collected low-quality textiles will only increase in the coming years. Not only because more and more is being consumed and thrown away, but also because of legislation, such as the Waste Framework Directive, European legislation that requires that all textiles in Europe are to be collected separately by 2025. According to Fashion for Good, it is also important that more funding is provided at policy level to enable the scaling up of textile recycling.
This article originally appeared on FashionUnited.NL. Translation and edit by: Rachel Douglass.