Prof. Stefan Schlichter
Sustainability determines our actions in increasing areas of our lives, and for the textile industry, as the 3rd largest industrial sector worldwide, it is becoming the central issue of the future. This is especially true in light of the fact that, according to a study by the Allen McArthur Foundation, the textile industry's performance record is extremely poor with a recycling rate of only 1 % worldwide.
The current handling of textile products manifests itself, for example, in trends such as “fast fashion”, as a result of which more and more goods of increasingly poor quality are coming onto the market, thus hindering the efficient use of resources. In addition, textiles represent a demanding and not very homogeneous group of goods, with many very different materials in diverse mixtures and with thoroughly challenging additives.
Consumer awareness is changing dramatically, so that sustainably produced goods can increasingly become an argument for future sales. Increasing pressure due to legal requirements should also be mentioned, which is forcing fast action. Against this backdrop, a radical change in the treatment of the topic of resource efficiency toward a consistently practiced circular economy is unavoidable.
First of all, the entire value chain must change from the linear approach practiced up to now, to a circular economy approach practiced along the whole value creation chain in all areas. This requires new approaches, as it calls for holistic thinking and consequently requires cooperation between all those involved in the textile value chain.
The central element of a functioning circular economy is value-adding recycling and the implementation of recyclable products.
The product with its properties must be at the focus of all activities. Process development only begins to develop its benefits when there are meaningful, marketable products at the end of the consideration. This requires a radical rethink, starting in research, in order to put product development in the foreground. As long as recycling is primarily used to dispose of waste in a “somehow meaningful” way, this results in inferior products that make no sense either economically or ecologically. Only when products made from recycled materials are perceived as valuable secondary raw materials and become recognized as valuable products will we come closer to the goal of a functioning circular economy. A cleaning rag must not be allowed to remain the typical product of textile recycling. Upcycling as a perspective for action in product development is the only concept which will have a reasonable future perspective.
Approaches to this new way of thinking can be realized in makers factories or recycling studios, such as those currently being implemented by the ITA Group in Augsburg/Germany. The model-like implementation of product development shows sensible ways to new products,
whereby important accompanying considerations of economic efficiency or the CO2 balance are also included in this phase, and thus make the industrial implementation risk more calculable. The idea that the implementation should be realized where the (secondary) raw material originates, without the usual long resource-consuming transports to the textile workshops in Asia and back, is both challenging and appealing. Recycling is consequently thought of as a new opportunity, especially for the textile industry in Central Europe, because measured by the availability of the secondary raw material Europe can now be considered to be a region rich in raw materials.
Many products are not designed or manufactured in a way that is suitable for recycling, making it unnecessarily difficult to implement the circular economy. The approach described results in a deeper knowledge of how to design future products in such a way that future recycling becomes easier and thus more economical. This is then a real functioning “Design for Recycling”.
If these central aspects are implemented in a targeted manner, very large application volumes will open up in the future, and not only in the apparel industry. Technical textiles in particular, but also hygiene articles, geotextiles, medical textiles and textile components in the construction and housing sectors add up to a highly interesting new volume market in which the German and European textile industry can develop interesting prospects for profitable products in new applications.
The development of automated processes and the supporting function of the digitalization of the processes make textile recycling an innovative field of application, which also includes sustainability in terms of the localization of these processes in Central Europe. This not only applies to the textile industry but also to textile machine manufacturing and the raw material industry for fibers. Innovative approaches in textile recycling can be a new field of textile development, combining new technologies and sustainable products.
Especially in the young population, which is very sensitive in this respect and thus the consumer group of tomorrow, we have opportunity to find sufficient creative potential in the implementation of these approaches.