Cotton and polyester are the materials with the greatest potential for recycling fibres to replace virgin materials, research by WRAP has found.
Its report Fibre To Fibre Recycling: An Economic & Financial Sustainability Assessment said as much as three-quarters of post-consumer recycling grades contain polycotton blends.
There is growing demand for cotton, and the potential for recycled cellulosic material to replace the virgin material made it likely that polycotton would provide viable incomes for recyclers.
WRAP set out to examine the emerging fibre2fibre recycling market, in light of a projected world cotton deficit of five million tonnes next year as demand exceeds supply.
It sought to discover how more textiles could be reused given that an estimated £140m-worth of clothing is sent to landfill every year in the UK.
WRAP director Peter Maddox said: “We know that only housing, transport and food have greater environmental impacts than clothing, and with rising global demand we urgently need to secure new sources of materials and find new markets for used clothing.
“Fibre2fibre recycling offers a potential solution, but one that has not been properly investigated.”
WRAP found that manual sorting alone may not be an economical way to produce feedstocks, and so automated sorting using near-infrared spectroscopy could be critical to wider development of this market.
Chemical recycling processes were commercially farther off than mechanical ones but may offer higher economic potential in the long run.
Collection and sorting were particularly important in the development of a post-consumer fibre2fibre marketplace, with demand from brands and retailers along with positive consumer perceptions of recycled textiles all being essential to its successful development.
Alan Wheeler, director of the Textile Recycling Association, said: “The fragility of existing fibre recycling markets is presenting a significant barrier to improving the overall sustainability of the fashion industry, which as we know has a huge environmental impact.
“The current markets for mechanically recycled fibres are limited. To be able to collect more clothing that is currently being disposed of, we must find new markets for recycled fibres or risk flooding these markets and potentially having to dispose of low-value recycling grade textiles. Clearly this cannot happen.”