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A dressing down for our current use of old clothes

The phrases ‘closed loop’ and ‘circular economics’ are all the rage, and so they should be.

The justifications for a new model of resource production and consumption are well established and no longer up for debate.

The cost of the natural resources that go into making textiles and clothing, particularly oil and cotton, are set to rise and continue to fluctuate dramatically during the coming years. A soaring global population means fewer resources for more people, and the problem of waste to landfill only threatens to get worse. The need for new solutions and more intelligent resource models is clear.

Just imagine a world where brand new textiles are made from existing ones. Imagine a world where end-of-use garments, no longer suitable for the reuse market, get broken down through environmentally friendly processes and the valuable raw materials, such as polyester and cellulose from cotton, are recaptured and turned back into equivalent quality yarn, fabric and garments.

This would mean, in the case of polyester, that, one day, we would no longer need virgin oil by-products as ingredients to produce it. We could see long-term price stability and a reliable supply of closed loop resources for textiles. This would bring not only economic benefits but also huge environmental benefits to brands, suppliers, consumers and, of course, the planet.

So what’s stopping us? The good news is that most of the core components needed for a circular flow of textile resources are already in place. Suppliers buy raw materials to produce fabrics and garments, brands sell them and people consume or wear them. The textile recycling industry is set up to collect end-of-use textiles and to find different markets for them. These either go for reuse, which is the highest value route, or into lower value products through ‘downcycling’.

But whichever route they go down in this current model, such textile resources are ultimately lost to landfill or incinerated, neither of which makes up a closed loop resource model. So what is needed to close the loop?

One of the biggest barriers for turning textiles back into textiles is the issue of mixed-fibre garments. Current mechanical recycling methods for textiles are unable to separate blended fibres, such as polyester and cotton, and equally cannot separate dyes or other contaminants. Similar problems exist with recycled polyester for textiles made from plastic bottles.

While there are second life uses for these resources, the resulting products may be of lower quality and with limited colour options because of remaining dyes. So they do not lend themselves to continual recyclability as part of a closed loop system.

The other factor is cost. The few mechanical or chemical textile-to-textile and bottle-to-textile processes that exist come at a premium, meaning it will remain a ‘nice to have’ for most brands and not a game changer in terms of the complete replacement of virgin resources with closed loop ones.

Fortunately, new environmentally friendly chemical recycling technologies that will overcome these issues are well underway, and should be coming to market during the coming years. These technologies represent the next generation of recycling – call it closed loop – where the ability to separate mixedfibre blends, recapture and produce a fibre comparable in quality and price to that produced from virgin derived resources, will become the norm.

New technologies will represent a significant leap forward, but they alone will not bring about a circular flow of resources for clothing and textiles. The next big closed loop bottleneck is going to be around recapturing the clothing and textiles we already have and keeping them in the loop. While the UK’s recycling rate for clothing and textiles is 40%, globally only 20% is collected for recycling. This means there will be a colossal challenge in keeping the remaining amount out of the bin and in our global pool of resources.

The reality is that we currently have enough polyester ‘above ground’ in the form of existing clothing and textiles in our wardrobes, shops, warehouses and household bins to satisfy the annual global demand of 28 million tonnes made from virgin resources for textiles. We just need to divert it from landfill more effectively.

Some forward thinking high street retailers and brands have started to pave the way for the transition to a closed loop system with in-store collection, which is just the tip of the iceberg. The big driver for change will be around the perceived value of clothing – not of the actual garments, but the resources within them.

Clothing and Textiles

Technologies that can provide a closed loop solution for what is considered today as a low-level grade resource, such as wiper grade, corporate wear or even waste, will create new markets and provide incentives to increase collection. These garments could, in the future, have a slightly higher value as closed loop resources.

This is where opportunities for textile recyclers, including charities, councils and entrepreneurial social enterprises, come into play, with new or increased revenue streams. Long term supply and pricing contracts between players around the entire value loop will encourage growth in this area and bring benefits across the board and to consumers in ways yet to be imagined.

With the advent of scalable and economically viable textile-to-textile recycling technologies, we will need governments and the resource management world to catch up. We will need sorting technologies that can better separate garments by fibre type, improved infrastructure and collection systems – regionally and globally – to make it easy for people to return unwanted clothing. A global communications campaign, led by the big brands, is also needed to change behaviour around textile recycling and perceptions around the value of clothing as a resource when it reaches its end of use.

The time to prepare for this new brave world is now. The dawn of closed loop textiles is exciting, full of opportunities and fast approaching.

Cyndi Rhoades is founder and closed loop executive officer of Worn Again, a UK-based company developing textile recycling technology and a closed loop resource model.

Rhoades will be speaking on 18 September in the Circular Economy Connect theatre at the RWM with CIWM exhibition

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