Textile recycling activates a circular economy

2021-04-16

 |  The Starfish

The life cycle of clothing is often not a cycle. Clothing is produced, bought from retailers, and then used by wearers. When it reaches the end of its life, most clothes end in landfills. Textile recycling offers a way to reuse and restore discarded clothing and fabrics, and close the loop. Using the principles of a circular economy, textile recycling reduces the need for raw materials, redirects fabrics from landfills, and makes use of clothing already in circulation.

Fast fashion, changing trends, and consumption habits affect our treatment of clothing. Retailers and consumers rush to keep up with high-end fashion; as a result, suppliers exploit both humans and resources in efforts to meet demands. Garment workers in countries like Turkey and Bangladesh are underpaid and work in unsafe conditions, and many factories employ children for low wages to dye and assemble clothing. While the amount of clothing produced keeps growing, the lifespan of clothes steadily decreases. According to Metro Vancouver’s Think Thrice About Your Clothes campaign, Vancouver residents threw away 44 million pounds of clothing and textiles in 2019. When textiles are sent to landfills, they break down slowly, releasing greenhouse gases over time. Natural fibres emit methane and carbon dioxide as they decompose over weeks, sometimes years. Synthetic fibres cannot decompose, and contaminate groundwater with toxic materials and dyes. The textile industry needs to change. Adopting a circular economy could reduce textile waste and its environmental impacts globally.

Most of the world currently uses a linear economy. The production line has an end over which all waste falls, hidden but not gone. Companies primarily use new materials like petroleum and cotton to make clothing, which we use and then discard after some time. But a lot of the clothing and textiles we throw away are still valuable! Here is where a circular economy comes in. 

A circular economy encourages accountability within the production line. Companies are responsible for their products, even after customers purchase them. When a product is no longer usable, the customer returns it to the manufacturer. Ideally, products are made of non-toxic, renewable materials. The products are then taken apart and recycled with little waste. Renewable energy is the best option for fueling the cycle, as a circular economy is designed to be restorative and continual. Recycling and reusing material reduces the number of raw materials needed to supply factories, creating a production cycle that fuels itself. 

The process of textile recycling starts with sorting material. Recyclers organize fabric by colour to avoid excess bleach or dye. Synthetic materials like polyester and acrylic melt down into plastic that can be spun into new fibres. Natural materials like cotton and hemp are mechanically shredded and mixed with new material to strengthen the recycled material. Sometimes, the fabric of a product is reused without breaking it down into fibres. Companies use recycled fibres and fabrics for mattress filling, new clothes, and many other products. 

Textile recycling is a circular process in a linear economy, but it has a promising future. The textile industry currently has a huge effect on the environment: 97% of production materials are new, and the industry uses roughly 93 billion cubic metres of water per year. Recycling textiles reduce the demand for new materials as well as the resources needed to dye and treat them. Recycling is not without environmental impacts, like the use of fossil fuels in recycling centres; Reusing textiles is, in most cases, the most sustainable option. But with investment and research, textile recycling could become more efficient.

By focusing on recycled material to feed the textile industry and addressing the poor working conditions caused by retail demand, the exploitative production line of textiles can be converted to a renewable cycle.