The textile industry is considered one of the most environmentally damaging of all. By the end of the year, the EU Commission will present its strategy for a sustainable textile sector. One aspect of the EU strategy concerns the circular economy. It is time to move from a linear to a circular textile economy. There are already innovative ideas and products in the textile industry.
The topic of sustainability will also take center stage at the international trade fair for occupational safety and health A+A from October 26-29, 2021 in Düsseldorf.
Figures from the EU Commission show that per capita consumption of clothing has increased 40% while its useful life has markedly decreased since 1996. At the same time, the useful life of textiles fell significantly. Across the EU nearly 26 kg of textiles are bought per inhabitant and 11 kg are disposed of, with the majority of this being incinerated or ending up in landfills. This is set to change.
There are already many initiatives and networks in existence – such as the expert group “Circular Economy” that has formed within the “Textilbündnis”. Late 2020 saw approaches for demand analysis and clustering of themes being addressed here. “With a view to linking recycling technologies and Design to Recycle with each other, the project ‘Product Clones” was initiated. Here all companies in the expert group were able to submit non-recyclable products. In the University Niederrhein/Wuppertal Institute we found a suitable partner to study non-recyclable products. The results are acted out and used to develop alternatives.
The recycling rate must be clearly optimized
The optimized recycling of textile production waste is the major theme of the RE4TEX network. Joining forces here are not only research institutes but also environmental and recycling companies with the aim of noticeably increasing the recycling rate in the textile industry. One of the partners is the Sächsischen Textilforschungsinstitut e.V. (STFI (Saxon Textile Research Institute)), Chemnitz/Germany. This institute is currently busy erecting a new set of buildings as a center for sustainability. The focal themes will include fiber-based mechanical recycling of textile fabrics and yarns as well as research on their reusability.
What already works in sports – Sympatex Technologies GmbH, Unterföhring/Germany, offers an outdoor jacket with zippers and buttons made of 100% recycled PET bottles – proves quite complicated for workwear. After all, wear resistance and color fastness but also wear comfort are essential demands made on garments that protect their wearers and are worn for a long time and gladly. As a rule, blended fabrics are used for this today. “But,” says Dr. Rüdiger Fox, CEO of Sympatex, “you are not allowed to blend materials because you would be producing special waste again.” The hope is that the market will respond faster with increasing demand. “If I say today, I want recycling, most respond – oh you are the only one. The minute everybody wants it, the market will probably turn very quickly,” Fox believes. He considers circular the new normal. “Just the way it is in nature,” he underlines.
Recycling program with Schiphol Airport
Workwear specialist Fristads AB, Borås/Sweden, views climate change and environmental destruction as a challenge the textile industry also has to help mitigate. Fristads is reducing the carbon footprint of its products from their development to the end of their lifecycle. Based on the Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) the Swedes measure the environmental impact of their garments. On a continuous basis, materials are being replaced by more sustainable alternatives and the portfolio is being extended to include a new Green Collection every year. The sustainability approach and circular thinking have come to play a crucial role in the purchasing decisions taken by major enterprises and public tenders. Fristads has initiated several projects for worn clothing. In the Netherlands, for instance, the Swedes have established a recycling program with public transport company Arriva and Schiphol Airport. Old garments are repaired and “overhauled” in such a way that they can be used as a “Second-Life-Stock”. Unwearable garments are collected, shredded und processed into knee pads or car interior parts.
The sustainability approach and circular thinking have come to play a crucial role in the purchasing decisions taken by major enterprises and public tenders.
Promote closed-loop systems and avoid waste of resources
The textile research done by 16 German textile research institutes supported by Forschungskuratorium Textil of the textil+mode Confederation, Berlin/Germany, helped develop ideas for better separation of worn textiles and clean-grade recycling. A process chain is currently being developed that analyses the quality of yarn or cutting waste in order to be able to judge the product quality of recycling textiles up front. This allows more waste to be recycled into high-quality products. This approach is aimed at counteracting the waste of widely used plastics going forward.
Green Deal for climate-neutral, circular economy-oriented business
Launching the European Green Deal and the Action Plan for the Circular Economy the EU Commission wants to help the textile industry out of this phase of “weak supply and demand”. This initiative aims to promote the transition to a climate-neutral, circular-oriented economy, where products are engineered in such a way that they are more durable, recyclable as well as easier to reuse and repair. The EU rates the potential for a circular economy in the textile sector as high.
Furthermore: According to the Circular Economy Act textiles are also to be sorted nationwide starting in 2025. They must no longer be disposed of in the residual waste bin. Furthermore, in public procurement recyclable products shall be given preference over non-recyclable ones. Material producers will have to offer circular products in future. Consumers should wear their garments for a longer period and feed them to recycling at their end of life. Finally, sorting and recycling facilities should be enabled to work more effectively according to information supplied with the garments.