Chemical Fibers International 1/2022: Circula...
Chemical Fibers International 1/2022

Circular Economy as a “game changer” in the global fiber industry

Friedrich Weninger, Managing Director Dornbirn GFC/Austrian Fibers Institute (Source: Dornbirn GFC)
Friedrich Weninger, Managing Director Dornbirn GFC/Austrian Fibers Institute (Source: Dornbirn GFC)

The textile industry seen on a global scale is one of the most polluting industries and ranks badly in raw material and energy usage. Textile consumption is the 4th highest pressure category in EU in terms of use of primary raw materials and water (after food, housing and transport) and 5th for GHG emissions (EEA). Of course, it mostly takes place outside of Europe – can we export this issue?

The past 2 decades have shown improvements through dedicated research. The usage of energy, raw materials, water, labor etc. per unit decreased significantly – but will this be enough? Over the last decades, the total consumption of fibers and textiles increased enormously due to population, and mainly consumption, growth per capita. It took 30 years from 1970-2000 to double fiber consumption and it took only 20 years from 2000-2020 to double again – this trend continues!

A huge driver of this enormous growth rate is Fast Fashion. The expected fiber consumption growth in polyester comes to a major part from this “unsustainable business model“ and will be approx. 4 % per year until 2030, resulting in additional 40 million tons per year in 2030 compared to 2020. However, we must not blame polyester for this development, because the fiber price is max. 4 % of the final sales price of a product. Hence, the price difference is irrelevant for the success of the "fast fashion business model". Synthetic fibers are positioned based on their price/performance and their benefits in the value chain.
There is a lot of discussion ongoing to replace mainly polyester, because of the environmental impact like microplastics, with other mainly natural fibers, but frankly speaking this is not a viable solution on a large scale.
Just looking at the expected additional 40 million tons of polyester by 2030 yearly, it is not possible to replace it with e.g. natural fibers – you have to consider the consequences of what the ecological impact would be if it was replaced by cotton – this would mean close to doubling cotton production! That seems very unrealistic in the context of global agricultural land competition and other environmental implications.

What about using textile waste? The global fiber industry currently produces more than 100 million tons of virgin fibers used for the textile and nonwovens industry yearly. Just out of the clothing waste close to 50 million tons arrive in the “global landfill“ or are incinerated – a tiny fraction of less than 1 % is recycled back into clothing. This is not at all a contribution to resource management or energy balancing.
The Green Deal in Europe is an attempt to position Europe as a forerunner in terms of carbon neutrality by 2050. The EU “Textile Strategy” will have a global impact on the fiber industry as Europe and the USA are major consumers of textile and nonwovens products. The Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP) is crucial for the success of the EU “Textile Strategy” and is a huge chance for the industry to develop relevant technologies.

The textile waste stream will become “the oil of the 21st century”: The revised Waste Framework Directive ((EU) 2018/851) obliges EU Member States to set up separate collection schemes for textiles waste by January 1, 2025. According to EU analysis, Europeans consume on average 26 kg of textiles per person per year of which 11 kg are discarded (5 million tons a year in Europe). Huge funds of close to 3-digit billion euros are made available from the EU to finance the green transition – e.g. European Green Deal, Horizon Europe, European innovation Fund, LIFE and several others. However, it is enormously complex, time consuming and costly to get access to those funds. The EU has to make it more practical for the SMEs to apply.

How can we benefit from the current developments and take part in the game changing?
•    Fiber producers and equipment manufacturers have to team up with waste management companies to get actively involved in the waste streams and act as a converter and provider for the valuable textile fiber fractions for further use.
•    Fiber producers have to get involved into the development of “fiber to fiber” processes (“bottle to fiber” is an established scale industry only for the short run, due to competition from “bottle to bottle”).
•    Fiber producers have to team up with retail and brands – high willingness for large scale investments in circularity (H&M, Ikea and Inditex). There is a huge need to involve the “established” industry in scaling up the “new technologies”!
•    Fiber producers have to team up with the EU and vice versa, as this industry is one of the “key turning points” to make circularity in the textile industry happen.

Europe has the power because its textile value chain from fiber to final product is still established locally to a major extent. However, this way forward will have a tremendous global impact as supply chains must adapt accordingly.
The Dornbirn GFC Innovation Congress has highlighted “Circular Economy” for more than 7 years now, and it has established a network of international experts in this area. The 61st Dornbirn GFC takes place in person in Dornbirn/Austria in September 2022 – take advantage of it!
Friedrich Weninger
Managing Director
Austrian Fibers Institute

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