The tech can separate collected textiles by fiber composition and color into precise recycling feedstocks and return them to the supply chain — but studies show consumers need to drive the garment industry to use more recycled content in their products.
Back in 2017, the linear nature of the fashion industry was brought sharply into focus when a report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) highlighted that one garbage truck of textiles was wasted every second. Three years on, it seems not much has changed.
According to EMF, more than $500 billion of value is lost every year due to clothing under-utilisation and the lack of recycling. Given that global apparel consumption is projected to rise almost two-thirds by 2030, are too few retailers considering social and environmental responsibility as a priority?
Post-consumer textile waste is a particular problem, as new textiles entering the market tend to reach their end-of-use rapidly. In Northwest Europe alone, around 4,700 kilo tonnes of post-consumer textile waste is generated every year. On average, only 30 percent of these textiles are collected separately — the rest is lost within the domestic waste stream.
While some of these collected textiles may get sold in the secondhand clothing market, that market is saturated. So, what doesn’t get sold on is effectively considered non-rewearable — and destined for downcycling at best, incineration or landfill at worse.
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As a result — given that nearly one-quarter of textiles collected have the potential to be recycled into new textiles but currently are not — a huge circular opportunity is being missed, according to Netherlands-based Circle Economy. The organization says these textiles represent 486 kilo tonnes per year, equivalent to the weight of 50 Eiffel Towers.
One potential solution lies in developing automated sorting technologies that enable non-rewearable textiles to be processed into feedstock for textile-to-textile recycling. Fibersort, a Near Infrared (NIR)-based technology, is one such example — after several years in development, it claims to be market-ready.
Circle Economy has been closely involved in helping to commercialize the Fibersort technology, along with other consortium project partners including textile collectors, sorters and recyclers. Fibersort works by categorizing textiles into different fractions (currently, 45 in total) based on fiber composition and color, and can sort around 900kgs of post-consumer textiles per hour.
“We quickly realized that there is a very diverse range of textile products,” Hilde van Duijn, project manager for Circle Economy’s circle textiles programme, told Sustainable Brands™ in a recent interview. “The idea of Fibersort has always been to sort in one pass over the machine into all the valuable fiber and color categories. Today, the machine has 45 different categories; and we are looking to further expand the number of categories.”
This is what distinguishes Fibersort from other technologies, she adds: “Other projects mostly do binary sorting with multiple machines, sorting only one product category per pass over the machine.”
Previous research undertaken by the Fibersort consortium has shown that almost 75 percent of collected, non-rewearable textiles in Northwest Europe are either cotton, polyester or polyester-cotton blends. Other materials such as wool and acrylic are collected in smaller amounts. Fibersort can sort these textiles — including wool, cotton, polyester, acrylic, viscose and nylon — by fiber concentration, including blends, and color.
“The machine is running today with more than 20 different color tones configured, but this number can be much higher,” van Duijn says, adding that the machine’s camera can distinguish between single and multi-color textiles.
In terms of sorting accuracy, tests have shown that Fibersort is very reliable for most fractions of pure and blended mono-materials, but that the technology may need further refinement to increase reliability for polyamide and viscose.
According to van Duijn, the level of interest in Fibersort from manufacturers, brands and recyclers has been “beyond expectations.” She says the technology is aimed at any company that has a need to sort textiles to enable more recycling, preferably textile-to-textile, and adds that it is already being sold into various countries to operate in real-life environments.
But while there are clear opportunities to integrate and scale up such sorting technologies — and their outputs — across global textile value chains, several challenges remain.
“For the Fibersort technology to live up to its full potential, manufacturers and brands need to start incorporating recycled, sorted, post-consumer content into their products,” van Duijn maintains.
Unfortunately, she says, the industry’s current focus on achieving recycled content targets is mainly centred around using recycled post-industrial textile inputs, rather than post-consumer ones.
Creating market pull for post-consumer inputs will be essential going forward. A recent report published by the Fibersort consortium notes that while several brands are already using recycled textiles on a small scale, the vast majority of them are not sourcing post-consumer textile waste.
The study also highlights a lack of pull from consumers to drive the garment industry to use recycled content in their products, stating: “The interrelationship between brand offer and consumer demand may be key to the success of recycled content integration.”
There is also the issue of price parity. Recycled fiber and fabrics made from post-consumer textiles tend to be more expensive than virgin fiber. That said, economies of scale should drive prices of recycled textiles down, but only if there is sufficient uptake of these materials by manufacturers and brands.
With Fibersort now ready and waiting to be adopted more widely, it would appear that all textile value chain stakeholders have a role to play going forward to ensure that such technologies become a key enabler for closed-loop recycling of post-consumer waste. Given the growing mountain of used clothes being discarded, this is one opportunity that shouldn’t be overlooked.