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Textile recycling is at a pivotal moment, experts say

Textiles collected for recycling

Methods for recycling clothing and other textiles exist but must be scaled up to meet the problem, several experts said during a recent panel discussion hosted by TOMRA. | Chatham172/Shutterstock

Textile production is among the world’s least sustainable industries, but that could change if brands, governments and investors supercharge and interweave recycling systems that already exist in isolation, experts said during a recent webinar from Europe.

“We currently are operating a textile value chain that is linear and massively efficient and cost-efficient, but it does not take into account the impact, the climate impact of the overall production,” said Vibeke Krohn, senior vice president of textiles for TOMRA, a global collection and sorting technology company based in Norway. 

“We want textiles to become circular, and we need the help of everyone,” she said. “We need a textile revolution.”

Krohn joined Cyndi Rhoades, co-founder of UK-based Worn Again Technologies and Circle-8 Textile Ecosystems, and Dunja Matanovic, engagement manager of the sustainability consulting firm McKinsey & Company, during the TOMRA-hosted “Transforming Textiles” virtual event on Feb. 7. 

The event gave a high-altitude view of the global churn of textiles, which are notorious for their outsized environmental impact. Fashion uses huge amounts of water and other natural resources to grow and dye cotton and other fibers, making products that are shipped around the world and often quickly discarded. 

The business of keeping fabric out of landfills ranges from donating and reselling clothing to cutting it into rags and other “downcycled” products, shredding and reweaving it by the thread, and even chemically recycling plastic fibers like polyester. 

This business has made notable progress, the speakers said. They pointed to brand sustainability commitments and the European Union’s advancing requirements for clothing durability, repairability and recyclability, the effects of which could stretch beyond the continent. 

“We think that 2024 is going to be a pivotal year when it comes to the transition in terms of sustainability pushed from the regulatory side,” said Matanovic, adding that many consumers reward fashion companies’ steps toward sustainability. “Now is really the time to take action.” 

But there’s also enormous room for improvement, particularly in clothing-to-clothing, or “fiber-to-fiber,” recycling. Less than 1% of the world’s annual textile waste enjoys this fate, according to a TOMRA white paper published to coincide with the webinar. 

“Yes, companies are making commitments, yes, there’s new innovation on the horizon, but I think the action on the ground just isn’t big or fast enough,” Rhoades said. 

There’s more than enough recyclable fabric in the world, she said, as well as plenty of techniques for collecting, sorting and processing it. But those systems will remain small and fragmented without a huge increase in investment. 

“It’s a huge amount of systems change that needs to happen,” she said. “It has to happen, and it’s a long game.”

The TOMRA white paper laid out four principles for achieving the needed scale in textile recycling: supportive policies and incentives, cross-industry collaboration for innovative business models, investments in automated sorting and other mature technologies and robust data that fosters transparency and traceability of material. 

“I don’t believe in one solution – I think we will have many solutions,” Krohn said. “We need to believe in a circular future.”

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