Recycling Atelier Augsburg: Efficient approac...
Recycling Atelier Augsburg

Efficient approach to more successful textile recycling

(Source: ITA Augsburg)
(Source: ITA Augsburg)

Only one in a hundred textiles – less than 1% - is recycled in a closed loop. The fast fashion trend, outsourced corporate responsibility, and a general decline in raw material quality are fueling this development. We need to put a stop to that. ITA Augsburg gGmbH – as part of the ITA Group, Aachen/Germany – together with its main partner Augsburg University of Applied Sciences and a strong network of partner companies, presents a novel and globally unique concept for the holistic meaningful recycling of textiles: the Recycling Atelier Augsburg.

The Recycling Atelier is a center for research and development along the entire textile production chain for textile recycling. Here, the individual process steps of textile recycling are combined in the setting of a model workshop. The bundling of the most important processes enables holistic and comprehensive research along the textile recycling value chain, which has not existed in this form before. With the Recycling Atelier as a catalyst, the strong consortium of business and research is initiating the urgently needed trend reversal towards a genuine circular economy. The focus of the Atelier is on upcycling and Design 4 Recycling. Upcycling refers to high-quality recycling in which old jumpers are turned into new jumpers again and do not end up as cleaning rags. Design4Recycling is the creation of a cycle-oriented product design. The reusability of a product plays a central role during its design process.
Fig. 1: The Recycling Atelier Augsburg - an Overview (Source: ITA Augsburg)
Fig. 1: The Recycling Atelier Augsburg - an Overview (Source: ITA Augsburg)
The Atelier includes all process steps from material analysis to sorting, preparation and textile processing - from preparation to spinning or nonwoven production - and product design. At each stage, a company from the industry supports the research with its industrial perspective and expertise. At the same time, the high degree of digitalization within the chain through high-quality and modern data collection, processing and evaluation enables the use of artificial intelligence methods - machine learning and neural networks. For example, for sorting - which is nowadays 100% manual - an automated solution is being developed using sensor technology, robotics and artificial intelligence.

Material analysis
Textiles are produced in a multitude of processes in differentiated stages of the value chain. Material analysis is used to determine the composition and quality of used textiles. Research approaches are the detailed analysis of materials supported by AI systems and by means of comprehensive laboratory equipment for rapid analysis.

The sorting process today is purely manual and at the same time requires a high degree of expertise in the material, composition, and quality of the textiles. In the Recycling Atelier, experts are working on the development of an automated sorting process using sensor technology, robotics, and artificial intelligence.

In the processing step, the sorted textiles are shredded (Fig. 2), freed from impurities and broken down to the individual fiber. The decisive quality criterion in mechanical recycling is the length of the individual fibers. Fine tuning of the machines and AI-supported recording and evaluation of the production data are the key to success. The research aims at length-preserving recycling through process analysis and design developments.

Textile processing
In this station, the processed fibers are returned to a textile (intermediate) product by producing either fiber slivers (Fig. 2) or nonwovens. The processing of the shorter recycled fibers requires a high degree of process understanding and control to achieve a good quality product. The use of artificial intelligence methods for process modelling and analysis can be a great support here. In addition, the targeted mixing of different recycling qualities and virgin fibers to ensure product quality is being investigated in the Atelier.

Spinning mill
In the spinning mill, the card sliver is either drawn and twisted (ring spinning, for high quality) or unraveled and twisted (rotor spinning) to obtain a fine and strong yarn (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: From used clothes to a new yarn (Source: ITA Augsburg)
Fig. 2: From used clothes to a new yarn (Source: ITA Augsburg)
The aim is to achieve the highest possible recycling rate while maintaining a high yarn quality. The research focus ranges from the control of process parameters by AI systems to constructive adjustments of the machines for optimization as well as online process monitoring for the detection of weak points in the yarn.

Product design
The challenges for cycle-oriented product development include a lack of economic perspectives for all process participants along the value chain, as well as a lack of coordination between the individual process steps. For future products, Design4Recycling concepts are developed which aid a closed-loop recycling economy. The Recycling Atelier accompanies the path of textile secondary raw materials back into high-quality products.

In the workshop, teaching, learning, and working take place around the megatrend of textile recycling. From 2025 at the latest, recyclability must be considered, whether in design, training, or studies - (re)thinking and (re)designing in cycles is in demand and will be taught and practiced in an interdisciplinary way. In workshops, companies are offered the opportunity to put their products to the test and to develop new concepts for a sustainable future. Sustainability and the circular economy can also be experienced in the InToSpace - Innovate-Together-Workspace - or in virtual space for interested people from all over the world.

The goal is to make a decisive contribution to the transformation of the linear economy to the circular economy and to make the vision of the textile circular economy a reality.

Fig. 3: The vision of the textile cycle: high-quality recycling instead of landfilling and energy recovery (Source: ITA Augsburg)
Fig. 3: The vision of the textile cycle: high-quality recycling instead of landfilling and energy recovery (Source: ITA Augsburg)
The 4 pillars of the Atelier are
- the development of new products and processes for textile secondary raw materials in the model workshop,
- the development of concepts for the complete recycling of used textiles with the best possible quality through both integrated and high-quality recycling (upcycling) and cycle-oriented product design (Design4Recycling),
- building bridges to the industrial use of recycling concepts and business models, and
- education and training in the field of recycling in the form of a learning factory and as a basis for training at universities.

Together, the partner network is looking for answers to the hardly practiced textile recycling and the missing triad of technical meaningfulness (downcycling), economic benefit (lack of profitability) and ecological meaningfulness (CO2 footprint). If this balance is restored, as the recently presented EU textile agenda vehemently and emphatically demands, then a revival of the regional and national textile value chain can also be expected.
Dr.-Ing. Georg Stegschuster
Institut für Textiltechnik Augsburg gGmbH, Augsburg/Germany

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