The untapped potential in textile recycling

Discover the textile recycling potential and how fiber-to-fiber recycling could recycle 2030-18 percent of textile waste by 26

Textile recycling potential

Author: House of Eden

  • Over 100 trillion new items of clothing are produced worldwide every year, resulting in massive overproduction and generating more than 15 kilograms of textile waste per person per year
  • Fiber-to-fiber recycling shows great potential to reuse between 18 and 26 percent of textile waste by 2030. This could offer significant economic, environmental and social benefits
  • Measures such as transitional financing, investments, sufficient quantities, collaboration and public funding are necessary to promote textile recycling and realize its promising future

Every year more than 100 trillions Producing new items of clothing even though we don't need them. This overproduction creates a lot of waste. More precisely, more than 15 kilograms are produced per person every year. Of the textile waste, only one comes from McKinsey study approximately 85 percent from discarded clothing or household waste. Most of this waste is burned in landfills, which is a problematic approach. Both the environment and us humans suffer enormously from this disposal method and its effects.

Countering this waste generation and disposal should be a top priority. There are various options to minimize the creation of textile waste. Firstly, overproduction and overconsumption can be reduced, secondly, the product life cycle can be extended, and thirdly, a product can be designed with a more circular economy in mind. Until the tipping point at which one or more of these options are successfully implemented, the existing and emerging textile waste cannot continue to be incinerated. An ecologically and economically better option is converting textile waste into new products, i.e. recycling it. The study examined the potential of recycling textile waste in more detail:

Textile recycling potential

There is already a selection of different textile recycling methods. One of the most sustainable and scalable approaches is fiber-to-fiber recycling. Textile waste is converted into new fibers, which are then used to produce new materials. This industry is characterized by rapid innovation and competition for size. Some recycling processes, such as mechanical recycling of cotton, are already established on the market, while others, such as chemical recycling of polyester, are still in development. Once both organic and inorganic textiles can be recycled, around 70 percent of textile waste should be able to be reused through fiber-to-fiber recycling. The remaining 30 percent could be used in open recycling cycles.

The textile recycling potential is very high and large amounts of textile waste can be avoided. However, so far the industry only reuses less than 1 percent of textile waste through fiber-to-fiber recycling.

Obstacles to textile recycling in pre-processing

There are three major hurdles that stand in the way of textile recycling in its first step, the preparation of textile waste.

  • Collect: The collection rate for textile waste is on average only 30 to 35 percent. This excludes a large proportion of potentially recyclable textile waste directly from the recycling cycle.
  • Sort by: Before sorting even begins, a large proportion of the unsorted textile waste is already exported abroad. The textile waste that makes it to sorting must meet strict requirements. The composition and homogeneity of the textiles are of great importance, which is why they are scanned and sorted according to their respective types and compositions.
  • Pre-treat: Textile waste consists of various types of textiles, including old or never sold clothing. Some of these contain buttons, zippers or other materials through the production process. These garments must be pre-treated before recycling, with all additives removed from the textiles.

There is still no mechanism that can carry out the sorting and pre-treatment of textiles accurately and automatically. Until now, these steps have been carried out manually by hand. However, in order to fully exploit the potential of fiber-to-fiber recycling, the processing of fiber mixtures must be expanded and the cost aspect reduced.

The McKinsey study found that by overcoming these barriers, fiber-to-fiber recycling could account for between 2030 and 18 percent of textile waste by 26. This would require investments worth 6 to 7 billion euros. If the aspects come true and the textile recycling industry has reached a certain size, it could become an independent and profitable industry by 2030, with a profit potential of 1,5 to 2,2 billion euros.

Advantages of textile recycling potential

The potential of textile recycling extends beyond direct economic benefits and also includes numerous ecological and social aspects. A significant expansion of textile recycling could not only strengthen the economy, but also create up to 15.000 new jobs. In addition, reducing CO2 emissions by up to 4 million tons could make a significant contribution to environmental protection.

The careful use of water, land and chemicals in textile recycling not only contributes to resource efficiency. It also minimizes the negative environmental impact of the textile industry. McKinsey estimates that the cumulative impact of these benefits could increase the total annual value of the textile recycling industry to €2030 billion to €3,5 billion by 4,5. This would correspond to a considerable annual return on investment of 55 to 70 percent. The integration of these sustainable practices could not only generate economic profits, but also have long-term positive effects on the environment and society.

Textile recycling potential

Measures for successful textile recycling

In order to ensure the promotion of textile recycling in the coming years, both the active action of various actors and the rapid implementation of measures are required. Five essential main goals are explained in more detail below:

  1. Transition financing: Transition funding will be needed to transition to the scale at which the textile recycling industry could be profitable, as predicted by McKinsey. This financing can be guaranteed through various options. For example, through an environmental bonus that brands and consumers share.
  2. Investments: A major redesign of various parts of the value chain is imminent, which requires significant financial resources.
  3. Sufficient quantity provision: The effectiveness of textile recycling on small scales is limited. In order to effectively use the required technologies for fiber-to-fiber recycling, the entire value chain must provide sufficient raw materials and enable the use of these recycling technologies on a large scale. It is therefore necessary for the industry to set ambitious scaling goals and work consistently to achieve them.
  4. Cooperation: An effective way to address many of the challenges ahead is to foster a high level of collaboration. Managers from different sectors of the economy, investors and heads of public institutions should come together in a previously unknown way to overcome the upcoming obstacles together and in a highly coordinated manner.
  5. Public impulse: Among other things, it is the responsibility of the heads of public institutions to actively promote textile recycling. This includes implementing measures such as increasing collection rates, restricting the export of unsorted textile waste, stimulating demand and creating a uniform framework for a more intensive circular economy.

The future of textile recycling

Textile recycling faces a promising future in which it can not only help solve the waste problem, but also offer significant economic, environmental and social benefits. Fiber-to-fiber recycling, in particular, shows great potential to overcome current challenges. The overwhelming overproduction of clothing and the associated textile waste could be converted into valuable resources.

The McKinsey study shows that by 2030, between 18 and 26 percent of textile waste could be reused through fiber-to-fiber recycling. However, this promising outlook comes with current obstacles in pre-processing, requiring innovative solutions and increased investment.

The benefits, from creating new jobs to significantly reducing CO2 emissions, make it clear that textile recycling potential is not only economically promising, but also sustainable and environmentally friendly.

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