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Finnish R&D Project Aims to Make Business from Circular Textiles

Telaketju, a Finnish network promoting sustainable recycling of textiles, shifts its focus from recycling to managing the whole value chain, extending textile lifespan and creating novel business models.

VTT (the Technical Research Centre of Finland) has announced that its two-year R&D project, called Telaketju, will expand into a second phase, and gather more than 20 companies and research partners together to create a sustainable basis for the circular economy of textiles.

The first two-year phase of the project focused on identifying, testing and comparing recycling methods used for textiles. The network also drew a rough outline of what sustainable recycling requires from the value chain. This work will continue in the second phase of the project, which focuses on a circular economy of textiles as a whole, as well as its new business models.

”We have an excellent opportunity in Finland to build an ecosystem where textiles are recycled in a sustainable manner,” says Senior Scientist Pirjo Heikkilä from VTT, who coordinates the Telaketju project. “The first phase of the Telaketju project clearly indicated that both companies and consumers are interested in the recycling and the circular economy of textiles, and we also have lots of diverse know-how. Now it’s time to find out how to turn the circular economy of textiles into a business.”

Turning end-of-life textiles into high-quality textile products

Telaketju 2 covers the value chain of a textile product, starting from product design. Its goal is to find out how clothes and other textiles can be made to last as long as possible, and to adapt to changing tastes and needs of consumers. One solution may be a textile-as-a-service concept, which is one of the many business models studied in the Telaketju 2 project.

Besides VTT — whose research has led to groundbreaking innovations that could help end plastic waste (including marine plastic) and textile wasteTurku, Lahti University of Applied Sciences and five companies are lending their own R&D to the project. 

When a used textile product proceeds to recycling, product information will take a crucial role, and it is also one of the focuses in the project. Basic information such as the percentage of cotton or polyester, is not enough, since the quality — and hence the further use of textile fibers — is influenced also by their past use, recycling and added chemicals.

“Managing product information is extremely important, in order to turn textile waste into products of highest-possible degree of processing, such as high-quality clothes and other textiles,” Heikkilä says.

The public part of the Telaketju 2 project is called Business from circular economy of textiles, and it is financed by Business Finland and more than 20 companies and other organizations.

“Through the Telaketju project, Finland has created significant expertise in textile recycling, as well as a wide network of cooperation,” says Sisko Sipilä, Chief Adviser of Business Finland. “They will help in finding sustainable textile solutions in line with the recycling and circular economy goals of Finland and the EU. The Telaketju 2 project belongs to Business Finland's Bio & Circular Finland programme, where textile recycling and its new business opportunities are one of the key themes.”

Building on Phase 1

In May, VTT announced the completion of the first phase of Telaketju — which resulted in the diversion of end-of-life textiles in Finland, but identified a lot of room for improved efficiency in their recycling and reuse. According to VTT's preliminary estimate, the annual market potential of mechanical recycling of textiles would be at least €60 million and it could reach up to €120 million.

The EU’s edict to require separate collection of textile waste by 2025 made it necessary for Finland to build up its system for recycling of textiles. Telaketju established a value network that collaboratively enabled the implementation of a chained production demo, in which end-of-life textiles collected from consumers in the Turku region were sorted and delivered to France for fiber extraction. The research partners and companies then used these to make their demo products, such as nonwoven fabrics, composites and acoustic panels.

The trials related to the recycling value chain have shown that recycling of textiles could be possible in Finland, as well, with the introduction of necessary components to the Finnish production chain — for example, the ability to identify textile fibers and the chemicals used in them. The sorting technologies must also be developed to ensure sufficient volume and quality of material for industrial recycling processes. Lounais-Suomen Jätehuolto — a waste management company in southwest Finland and one of the key actors of Telaketju — is already planning a sorting and processing plant of textile waste in Turku. It is expected to launch its operation in a year's time.


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