From Trash to Treasure?

Hardly any other industry requires such high consumption of water, chemicals, energy and carbon dioxide as the textile industry. But also, garbage is a major problem for the industry. Every year, German consumers buy about ten kilograms of new clothes. Consequently, private households in Germany alone produce 1.35 million tons of worn clothing annually (Fachverband Textilrecycling); in Europe 5.8 million tons annually (Greenpeace). Instead of being recycled and reused, huge quantities of old clothing end up in the landfill (Fibre2Fashion). Today’s fashion trends are tomorrow’s garbage. Responsible for this massive waste are fast-fashion trends and consumers who constantly buy new clothing.

If the clothes do not end up in the trash immediately, they are usually donated as old clothes. In Germany solely, around 750 thousand tons of old clothes are donated every year (RE TEXTIL). But of these, only 50 to 60 percent are usually still in good condition and wearable. So, the question arises: What happens to the other 40 to 50 percent?

More and more people follow sustainable, fair and environmentally friendly fashion trends. This has led to the fact that existing materials are increasingly being used in the production of new clothes and existing materials are simply being recycled. Many initiatives, start-ups and established companies have therefore made it their task to recycle textile or other waste to produce T-shirts or functional clothing, among other things. Yet, less than one percent of the aforementioned old textiles is processed into new fibers for the clothing industry in a closed cycle (recovery); the majority is downcycled: Every old textile is usually good enough for a cleaning rag, but hardly reused for the production of the same items such as pants, shirts or shoes. But a circular economy for the textile industry could be the solution for the waste of resources and for goods that can no longer be marketed as second-hand fashion.

When it comes to recycled textiles, there are many things to consider, to question critically and to judge positively. But let us have a look at its process first:

Primarily, it is about the time at which a material enters the recycling process. Here, a distinction is made between pre- and post-consumer waste. While pre-consumer waste considers waste collected from the manufacturing process before reaching the customer, post-consumer waste is obtained after the product has been used by the consumer and can therefore be damaged, old, or discarded (Textile Focus).

Secondly, these types of waste can be converted into fibers by two main processes: mechanical and chemical recycling. In mechanical recycling, the material is shredded, washed and fused into new fibers that can be spun into yarns. Cotton-based fabrics are generally used with this technique. This manufacturing process is much more environmentally friendly than the conventional one. In chemical recycling, a chemical solution removes the different components of mixed fabrics and thus obtains a material that can also be spun into fibers and finally converted into yarn. Generally, polyester and synthetic fabrics are used in this method. This process can be repeated endlessly with synthetic fibers and significantly reduces energy consumption and CO2 emissions compared to conventional polyester production; additionally, no new crude oil is consumed.

Which leads us to the pros and cons of textile recycling. Anyone who collects, sorts, chemically separates or mechanically shreds, spins, dyes, weaves, sews and finally brings clothing back to the shelves will as well consume energy and resources. One of the main problems of recycling clothing is that it is rarely made from cotton, viscose or silk alone. Instead, it is mostly mixed fabrics. Disassembling such interwoven fibers again brings textile recycling to its limits; not only is it technically complicated, but the previous processes are also expensive and complex, they require a lot of energy, and what comes out in the end is often of significantly poorer quality than the original fiber. Another problem is the additional procurement of the material via garbage exports: According to estimates by the German District Association, one million tons of plastics are shipped to developing and emerging countries worldwide – often to Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand – in which adequate disposal is usually not ensured (Tagesspiegel). Recycled plastic is transported from one place of production to the next, which causes carbon dioxide emissions and questions a positive ecological balance. Many brands source plastic from the ocean, which can be heavily contaminated with pollutants, therefore must be thoroughly cleaned and in addition, could still release microplastics due to fiber abrasion when wearing or washing in the washing machine.

Nonetheless, with the production of textiles made from recycled ocean plastic, harmful substances are being deliberately fished out of the ocean, and thus do not end up in landfills, incinerators and the environment.

As well as slowing down of unnecessary virgin textile production by the effective recovery and recycling of textile and fashion waste, recycled fibers neither require fertilizers nor pesticides, as the reuse of old clothes means that no new plants must be planted and watered. This saves raw materials and resources, lowers energy consumption, saves emissions and is therefore good for the climate and our environment.

Compared to new textiles, recycled clothing saves water, chemicals and energy. Yet, it should not count as a free ticket for uninhibited consumption. It is a first step towards sustainable fashion. Above all, in order to consume sustainably, we need to consume less, buy durable, timeless designs, wear them for a long time, repair them; and only then recycle.

by Marie Klimczak

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