In reckoning with the fashion industry’s sustainability issue, more and more manufacturers are pushing for textile recycling at scale as a way to create value from waste. Driven by rising interest in the ‘circular economy, brands from Patagonia to H&M and Levi’s have all introduced their own versions of textile recycling schemes – both mechanical and chemical – that aim to extend the life cycle of garments by repurposing materials. In spite of this, due to the inherent difficulties linked to textile recycling, we have yet to witness the same widespread adoption of textile recycling as in other industries such as paper or plastic.
A glaring gap in scaling textile-to-textile recycling is its lack of economic incentive. For many fiber and textile manufacturers, producing virgin materials is often simply the cheaper method, and while leading global brands have started to use recycled cotton and polyester in their garments, most of this isn’t derived from fabric but rather, other plastic products like single-use plastic bottles.
Textile-to-textile recycling is usually also far more complex, labor-intensive, and time-consuming than producing virgin textiles as many garments today are made from fiber blends like cotton/polyester/elastane, all with separate recycling capacities.
All this renders textile recycling a complex process to scale and make commercial but innovative companies like Austrian fiber manufacturer Lenzing are finding ways around these challenges. The company recently launched its “Fiber Recycling Initiative” by TENCEL™ in close collaboration with its mill partners. The initiative sees the ability to recycle pre-consumer TENCEL™ lyocell waste at a commercial scale. Aiming to transform the textile industry with a focus on circularity, the initial phase of this initiative focuses on the denim segment and the production of new denim fabrics. For the program, Lenzing worked with its long-standing partner mills, Artistic Milliners from Pakistan, Canatiba from Brazil, and Textil Santanderina from Spain.
While mechanical recycling processes have been established for conventional fibers such cotton, the process usually results in a loss of fiber quality so virgin fibers are added to compensate for this, increasing the cost of manufacturing recycled fibers. Similarly, chemical recycling also requires the addition of virgin fibers, while the re-dyeing of textiles also impacts textile-to-textile recycling. For many companies, it is often easier and cheaper to shred the garment for industrial purposes, such as wall insulation, or even burn it for fuel.
In contrast, Lenzing and its mill partners discovered that when compared with recycled cotton, mechanically recycled TENCEL™ Lyocell fibers have better physical properties such as strength and length. Similar to virgin TENCEL™ fibers, fabrics made with recycled TENCEL™ fibers are soft and breathable while also having high durability and a high absorbency rate, thus making them a sustainable alternative to conventional denim. At the same time, mechanically recycled TENCEL™ Lyocell fibers are also versatile and can be spun into a broader range of yarns and fabrics, from lightweight to heavyweight and from silky to denim-like textures.
The “Fiber Recycling Initiative” by TENCEL™ also underlines Lenzing's ongoing commitment to promoting transparency, circularity, and sustainability within the textile industry. This approach to transparency and visibility is critical for Lenzing's customers and brand partners to verify their sustainability claims. It is also key for consumers who are increasingly aware of the impact of their purchasing decisions.
By demonstrating that mechanically-recycled TENCEL™ Lyocell fibers can be a viable and attractive alternative to virgin materials, Lenzing is encouraging other companies to follow suit and embrace circularity as a core value. At the same time, Lenzing acknowledges that collaborative innovation with its mill partners worldwide has been crucial to enabling the first phase of the Fiber Recycling Initiative by TENCEL™. By sharing knowledge, expertise, and resources, Lenzing and its partners strive to optimize the recycling process, reduce costs, and increase efficiency. At the same time, this new collaborative approach also opens up possibilities for recycling other Lenzing fibers in the future.