Fashion for Good quantifies potential of reusable post-consumer textiles in Europe
According to a sixteen-month study in six European countries, 74% representing 494 000 tonnes of low-value or non-rewearable post-consumer textiles collected are made of fibres suitable for recycling. This was the conclusion of the ‘Sorting for Circularity Europe’ study by the Fashion for Good organisation, which looked at the nature of post-consumer fibres available, and at the industrial infrastructure that needs to be developed to handle them.
The study was carried out in Belgium, Germany, Poland, Spain, the Netherlands and the UK. It monitored 21 tonnes of end-of-life garments from the Fall/Winter 2021 and Spring/Summer 2022 seasons, to understand seasonal variations. The study found that cotton was the fibre most commonly present representing 42% of the total, ahead of fabric blends (32%), among which polycotton, a mix of cotton and polyester, was predominant with 12%.
Leaving aside problematic elements like buttons and zips, as well as dye-related recycling issues, the study found that 21% of the stock monitored could be handled by means of mechanical recycling, while 53% is suitable for chemical recycling. This is the key point of the FFG study, since only 2% of end-of-life garments collected are currently destined for fibre-to-fibre recycling.
"As fibre-to-fibre textile recycling commitments and policies increase, as well as the amount of textile waste collected, the infrastructure needed to drive the shift to circular systems requires significant investment to scale up,"” said Katrin Ley, general manager of FFG. “To make informed investment decisions, as well as to assess the business case for monetisation through recycling, a deeper understanding of the characteristics of today’s European post-consumer textiles landscape is needed. This project lays the knowledge foundation that will enable key players to set the process in motion,” she added.
FFG’s twelve-chapter, freely downloadable report estimates that, in the observed countries alone, 264,000 tons of cotton could be available for recycling annually, as well as 67,000 tons of polyester and 78,000 tons of polycotton. Recycling is still mainly hampered by garment dyes, as the study indicated that the feedstock available for mechanical recycling is mostly white (25.1% of the total), blue (20.8%), black (14.1%) and grey (10.3%).
Another obstacle to recycling are “disruptive” elements like zips, buttons and other metallic details, which emerged as a major challenge. These elements in fact proved to be impossible to remove on 48.7% of the single-layer garments analysed. And only 32.4% of all garments incorporated no such elements. Labels aiming for circularity need to take into account the fact that these disruptive components still remain a challenge for automated garment sorting and recycling.
Six recommendations to boost circularity
At the end of this data-rich report, intended for manufacturers, brands and designers, FFG made six recommendations. It notably proposed to pay more attention to designing products for recyclability, at a time when 26% of garments are not recyclable for various reasons. Secondly, it suggested that recycling should be considered as a last resort: labels must prioritise boosting their products’ longevity, designing them for “appropriate life cycles.” Thirdly, FFG pointed out that waste sorting is still little automated and expensive, and this should be taken into account in calculating the price of fibres destined for recycling.
FFG also pointed out that the rise in volumes of unusable collected materials risks undermining the much-needed expansion of sorting organisations. Something labels should take into account, at a time when 55% of the materials collected in the observed countries are sorted abroad. FFG also called for further quantitative research, country by country, to identify the potential of and the obstacles to greater textile recycling.
Finally, FFG appealed to consumers themselves, notably encouraging them to favour garments made of a single material, or of a blend of two materials only. And also, to think about repairing, reselling or even swapping used clothes and accessories, before giving them away for collection.
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