A new consortium, Cisutac, wants to remove the barriers that European fashion brands and textile suppliers face on their journey to become circular. Co-funded by the European Union (EU) and supported by 27 partners, the project aims to increase reuse, repair, and recycling capacities for discarded clothes with affordable tools.
“The European textile industry is already working towards a more sustainable fashion,” said communications coordinator Charlotte Denis. “However, several key bottlenecks remain that prevent the industry from increasing circular use of textiles.” Quality, durability, and recyclability are often not prioritised in garment production, while the industry needs all three of them to achieve the EU’s 2030 climate targets. The goal of the four-year Cisutac initiative, short for Circular and Sustainable Textile and Clothing, is to remove current bottlenecks and develop new, circular, and integrated large-scale European value chains.
Launched last September, the project is led by Centexbel, a Belgian research centre for textiles and plastics. They are responsible for the overall project coordination, development of the pilots and support of the Life Cycle Assessments, a methodology to measure environmental impacts of a commercial product. Research platform Textile ETP is in charge of sharing information and the results of the project.
Other partner organisations include apparel companies such as Decathlon, but also textile associations like Euratex or fibre manufacturer Lenzing.
Retain, recycle, reuse
Cisutac has started three pilots: The first seeks to retain the most value of existing items especially for reuse. The second is about preventing errors during the sorting of textiles for recycling, such as adding the wrong materials. The last pilot attempts to reduce manual labour and the level of expertise of the personnel required in sorting, dismantling and repair. The scope of the pilots is notably broad, covering almost 90 percent of all textile fibres including polyester and cotton as well as the three sectors fashion garments, sports and outdoor, workwear.
Recycling in the textile industry still faces many challenges before it can be scaled up. The reasons behind the current difficulties are numerous, including degraded fibre quality and the need to mix recycled content with virgin fibres. Most garments consist of a mix of different fibres and are difficult to separate with current technologies. Sorting capacities are also lacking investments in research and machines.
Early results for the pilots are expected in late 2023, after which they will be transformed into prototypes at a bigger scale. Developments are not expected to be adopted by the industry within the next two years. The new technologies and best practices arising from Cisutac are expected to help Europe’s textile industry In the long-term.
“Cisutac will enable the industry to keep textile materials in closer local or regional loops and favour high quality products that are more durable, easily repairable and with a higher re-use or resale value,” said Charlotte Denis, communications officer at Textile ETP.
Partnerships for impact
Cisutac's focus on sorting and recycling used textiles is no coincidence. It’s crucial for the textile industry to tackle this area as the EU is pushing stricter regulation for companies to take more responsibility for their products. Currently, less than 1 percent of textiles are recycled, according to estimates by the charity Ellen MacArthur Foundation. An enormous amount of discarded clothing ends up in landfills, often in developing countries. Exports of discarded textiles from the EU tripled in the past 20 years, according to a report by the European Environment Agency in February. Improving recycling could ease the burden on the environment, by reducing the amount of waste and resources to produce virgin materials.
Denis says that initiatives like Cisutac can only make a significant impact on consumers and the industry if they receive sufficient incentives and support by public authorities. That is why societal organisations like Texfor and Refashion ETP are included in the project. The project also has partners like fashion giants Inditex and PVH which have a Europe-wide network, guaranteeing market reach across many countries.
According to Michael Kininmonth, a business development manager at project partner Lenzing, related initiatives from the last five years have failed to gain momentum because they were underfunded and because companies worked in silos. Cisutac, however, has a funding of almost 10 million euros. “This Cisutac consortium is EU-wide, and includes all sorts of brands, organisations and EU-associations, so it has the best chance to catalyse scaling up the sector’s needs,” he said.
Cisutac is a pre-competitive collaborative research project, meaning that parties are financially incentivized to work together. This is a unique situation. Usually, brands and other organisations don’t get into experimental sustainability projects, because of the high costs for research and development. To secure a sustainable future for the textile and broader fashion industry, it is very important to create spaces outside the competitive landscape and work towards common solutions for everyone.
The first phase of Cisutac looks to improve repairing and disassembling of workwear and outdoor products like backpacks and tents. The project partners will develop semi-automated stations with tools for repair and dismantling, enabled by robotised assistance for the operator of the machine. On the socio-economic level, repair and dismantling services will be tested in local reuse and repair shops with the help of local public authorities.
Augmented reality software will first detect important information about the items that will be repaired or disassembled, such as brand, product category and materials. Using that input, the instructions for the next tasks to be performed by the personnel at the semi-automated stations will appear on a smart visor or display. Since this process is very technical and comes with a learning curve, tailored training assistance for the operator personnel is also covered by the project.
Deciding on a garment’s second life
The second phase of Cisutac seeks to enhance the sorting process for discarded clothes. The commercial clothing recycling company Texaid will lead this pilot. Circular innovation hub Wargön Innovation will develop a decision support tool to help operators choose whether a garment should be reused, repaired, or recycled to retain most of its value, using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning. These algorithms will use data sets to generate real-time recommendations that guide textile sorters in their assessments.
To prepare for recycling, phase 2 includes looking for ways of sorting into more precise streams of the same material and removing unwanted elements. Ideally, there would be four value streams: textiles for reuse, cellulose recycling, fibre-2-fibre recycling of polyester and cotton.
Starting off with the enhanced sorting operations from pilot 2, the last phase is all about developing mechanisms to improve the recycling of pre- and post-consumer textile waste. Cisutac is also looking for solutions for complex technical textile waste made with multiple materials that require different types of sorting, such as backpacks and protective sportswear. The goal is to work on a novel spinning technology for hybrid yarns based on techniques that are currently used for bottle-grade PET. Major fashion groups such as Inditex and PVH will support this phase of the project.
Legislation and EU-initiatives
Finally, to support upcoming policy and legislation, Cisutac will also deliver an overview of the status of textile waste collection and the European sorting capacity, using existing circular economy transition scenarios, open data standards and circular design guidelines.
Cisutac is among the long list of EU-backed initiatives to make the textile and fashion industry more sustainable. Consumption of textiles has the fourth-highest impact on environment and climate change, according to the European Commission.
That is why the EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles was created by the EU. The strategy proposes a long list of measures for the entire lifecycle of textiles products – from the way textiles are designed and consumed to how they can be repurposed. Among them are design requirements for textiles, digital product passports, tighter controls on greenwashing, extended producer responsibility and better waste management.