Today more than 15 kg of textile waste is generated per person in Europe. The largest source of textile waste is discarded clothes and home textiles from consumers—accounting for around 85 % of the total waste. The generation of textile waste is problematic, as incineration and landfills—both inside and outside Europe—are its primary end destinations. This has several negative consequences for people and the environment. But a significant transformation lies ahead that could create a large and sustainable new industry that turns waste into value.
There are multiple ways to address the waste problem, including the reduction of overproduction and overconsumption, the extension of product lifetime, and designing products for increased circularity. One of the most sustainable and scalable levers available is fiber-to-fiber recycling—turning textile waste into new fibers that are then used to create new clothes or other textile products. This space is characterized by fast-paced innovation and a race toward scale. Some technologies, like mechanical recycling of pure cotton, are already established. Other technologies, like chemical recycling of polyester, have been subject to intense R&D and are on the brink of commercialization. Once fully mature, estimates indicate that 70 % of textile waste could be fiber-to-fiber recycled. The remaining 30 % would require open-loop recycling or other solutions like producing syngas through thermo-chemical recycling. However, today less than 1 % of textile waste is fiber-to-fiber recycled due to several barriers to scale that need to be overcome.
Collection, sorting, and preprocessing limit the amount of textile waste made available to fiber-to-fiber recycling. Collection rates are currently 30 to 35 % on average, and a large share of the unsorted gross waste is exported outside Europe. Furthermore, most fiber-to-fiber recycling technologies have strict input requirements for fiber composition and purity—for example, elastane is problematic for several of these technologies. Consequently, textile waste needs to be scanned and sorted according to the relevant input requirements. As another example, jeans must have their zippers and buttons removed—a problem that needs to be solved by preprocessing. Advanced, accurate, and automated fiber sorting and preprocessing are not yet developed. Finally, to reach their full potential, the fiber-to-fiber recycling technologies must further expand their ability to handle fiber blends, lower their costs, and improve their output quality—these bottlenecks prevent the circular textile economy from scaling. An analysis prepared by McKinsey’s Retail Practice indicates that by overcoming these barriers, fiber-to-fiber recycling could reach 18 to 26 % of gross textile waste in 2030.
To reach this scale, we estimate that capital expenditure investments in the range of €6 billion to €7 billion would be needed by 2030. The entire value chain, including textile collection, sorting, and recycling, requires investments to reach scale. This analysis indicates that this industry could—once it has matured and scaled—become a self-standing, profitable industry with a €1.5 billion to €2.2 billion profit pool by 2030. The textile recycling value chain could create a new, valuable raw material that enables more apparel production in Europe, which may lead to additional value creation above what is quantified in the report “Scaling textile recycling in Europe – turning vaste into value”.
Beyond the direct economic benefits, scaling textile recycling unlocks several environmental and social benefits. For example, in our base-case scenario, about 15,000 new jobs could be created and CO2e emissions could be reduced by approximately 4 million tons—equivalent to the cumulative emissions of a country the size of Iceland. By quantifying into monetary terms several other impact dimensions like the secondary effects to GDP from job creation, CO2
e-emission reduction, and water- and land-use reduction, our analysis shows that the industry could reach €3.5 billion to €4.5 billion in total annual holistic impact by 2030—coming to an annual holistic impact return on investment of 55-70 %.
International Monetary Fund; Mistra.Future Fashion (summarizing various data points); Stockholm Environmental Institute
To capture this opportunity, collaboration and innovation will be key
The identified bottlenecks preventing scale are significant and will require several stakeholders to act boldly. Textile recycling in Europe will not reach a favorable state by 2030 unless major action is taken quickly. This report identifies 5 main ingredients for success.
Fiber-to-fiber recycling at scale can help address Europe’s waste problem by turning waste into value. The European apparel and textile industry can start expanding the required infrastructure for collection, sorting, and closed-loop recycling today. This report establishes the opportunity at stake for textile circularity and highlights actions required to capture it. Furthermore, we hope this report can be a foundation for further research and collaboration to establish textile recycling at scale in Europe.
The authors wish to thank their partners at Euratex, Brussels/Belgium, and its ReHubs initiative for their contributions to the report, as well as the many industry experts who took the time to generously share their experience, research, and perspectives on textile circularity.
Saskia Hedrich is a senior expert in McKinsey’s Munich office; Jonatan Janmark is a partner in the Stockholm office, where Moa Strand is an associate partner; Nikolai Langguth is a consultant in the Oslo office; and Karl-Hendrik Magnus is a senior partner in the Frankfurt office.