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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Good News, Bad News for Reducing Textile Industry Impacts

While the textile industry presents endless opportunities to significantly reduce global environmental impacts, progressing towards sustainability and circularity continues to be an uphill battle. As a new technology is revealed to be instrumental in reducing the carbon footprint of textile coatings, a new ban on scrap textile imports in China could curb global textile recycling progress.

First, the good news. A recent life-cycle assessment (LCA) of a waterborne polyurethane (PU) technology created by high-tech polymer company Covestro and dubbed INSQIN® has been found to reduce the carbon footprint of textile coating by 45 percent compared to conventional solvent-based technology.

“The LCA provides an extra layer of assurance in the environmental performance of INSQIN. It shows brands that this technology can help them reach their sustainability targets. Achievements in carbon footprint reduction will be important to not only fashion and sportswear brands, but also the automotive and furniture industries,” said Nick Smith, Global Head of Textiles and Coatings at Covestro.

The study compared a comprehensive range of parameters to assess the environmental performance of waterborne PU from the extraction of raw materials to coated fabric production versus that of the conventional technology, which involves the use of the solvent dimethylformamide (DMF).

The impact of this reduction is enough that if the entire textile industry switched to using this waterborne PU technology, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions would be equivalent to taking every car off the road in Beijing, or in London, Hong Kong and Los Angeles combined.

Eighty-five percent of the reduction in INSQIN’s Global Warming Potential is due to the lower energy consumption of the dry textile coating process that is enabled by the waterborne PU and that replaces conventional wet processing. Essentially, the benefit of the technology lies in the process changes it makes possible.

Using INSQIN to coat textiles with PU also has the potential to reduce acidification of water and soil resources by 20 percent compared to conventional options.

The technology also boasts benefits in terms of water consumption, using 95 percent less process water than traditional technologies. If the entire textile industry were to employ INSQIN, enough water would be saved every day to meet the daily water use of nearly 340,000 people in China.

“Life cycle thinking is crucial if we are to overcome key challenges of the future and push sustainability. Life cycle studies help to quantify the potential of technologies to reduce environmental impacts and thus contribute to more sustainable solutions,” said Dr. Lydia Simon, Global Sustainability Manager for Coatings, Adhesives and Specialties at Covestro.

And now, the bad news. Despite the growing popularity of using scrap textiles to bolster industry circularity initiatives, China has banned the import of textiles scraps under the guise of reducing pollution. The move has inspired pushback from the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), who has filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO).

According to the ISRI, such a move could impede progress on global textile recycling and prevent China’s manufacturing sector from accessing valuable recyclable materials and minimize other opportunities for recycling.

“ISRI fully supports the efforts of the Chinese government to improve environmental protection and standards within its domestic recycling infrastructure. However, we disagree that a ban on the import of specification-grade scrap materials will help with those efforts,” the organization noted in its comments to the WTO. “For recycled commodities such as recovered paper and fiber, plastic scrap and copper scrap, China accounts for more than half of the world’s total imports.”

The organization added that China needs to provide better clarification on what would be prohibited in terms of imports and create clear regulations for the exporting community. Additionally, ISRI said that the US recycling industry — which could be negatively impacted by an indefinite ban — was willing to work together with China to develop better domestic collection practices in order to support pollution-reducing efforts.

“With more than $5.2 billion in scrap commodities exported from the United States to China last year alone, the trade in specification-grade commodities between the United States and China is of critical importance to the health and success of the US-based recycling industry and China’s manufacturing sector,” continued ISRI. “If implemented, a ban on scrap imports will result in the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and the closure of many recycling businesses throughout the United States.”