The plastic crisis in the form of garbage swirls in the sea and gigantic waste dumps are one of the central challenges for the entire human population. But there is a supposedly simple solution: recycling.
Next to the climate crisis and the extinction of species, overcoming the plastics crisis is the third major challenge for humanity. Numerous media reports about microplastics in water, air, soil and organisms and the shocking images of garbage in the sea and the animals dying from it have given plastic a negative image in the meantime. At first glance, plastic has numerous advantages, especially in the area of clothing: Textiles made of polyamide, polyester, acrylic or nylon are inexpensive, dry quickly and adapt well to physical needs. It is therefore hardly surprising that around 70 per cent of all fibres produced worldwide are synthetic fibres – expressed in tons, the figure is estimated to be around 53.7 million tons. Textiles thus account for 15 per cent of annual global plastic production.
Clothing as a disposable product has serious consequences
Even if they wanted to, producers could currently not meet the demand for clothing with fibres from sustainable sources (e.g. organic cotton). This is because clothing has unfortunately become a disposable product and also contributes significantly to climate change and environmental pollution. The fast fashion industry in particular throws masses of cheaply produced clothing onto the markets and with meanwhile 50-100 (!) fashion cycles per year continuously creates new incentives to buy. As a result, 64 per cent of our clothes usually end up in the trash – even though they could still be worn. In the EU, 80 per cent then end up either directly in the waste incinerator or the landfill.
EU focuses on bans and recycling quotas
The plastic waste problem has now reached the general public and politicians are beginning to act slowly to regulate plastic consumption, including bans on disposable plastic items such as plastic straws or disposable cutlery. In January 2018, the European Commission presented a plastics strategy whose central goal is that all plastic packaging should be 100 per cent recyclable by 2030. In December 2018, the Council, Parliament and Commission also launched a recycling quota of 25 per cent in PET bottles from 2025.
Because one thing is for sure: The best plastic is not made at all, the second best is recycled. The new EU plans for more recycling management therefore focus on more plastic recycling. This is urgently needed. As a 2017 study by the chemical and waste disposal industry shows, recycled plastic has only been used very sparingly in Germany to date. Just 12 per cent of the plastic processed in Germany is recycled plastic – that is almost 1.8 million tons. This compares to over 12 million tons of newly produced plastic. So far, the German packaging law in force since January 2019 provides for a recycling rate of 63 per cent for materials, and as of 2022 as much as 90 per cent for plastics – so far it is only 36 per cent.
However, this recycling rate only says how much material has to be fed into the recycling system, but nothing about how much is actually recycled. So it cleverly disguises the fact that what matters here is the amount delivered to a recycling company and not how much recycled output is ultimately obtained from that delivery.
The recycling problem – and its solution
The good news, however, is that global consumption of recycled polyester has increased by 58 per cent within a year (as of 2016). If it were possible to completely close the garment cycle through recycling and thus gradually contribute to garment waste becoming a raw material for the textile industry again, we would no longer have a plastic problem – at least not in this industry. Because recycling makes it possible to use synthetic fibres for longer.
At Sympatex, we have already shown that this supposed fantasy can become reality for both, clothing and shoes. Partial or even complete recycling is now technologically possible. Provided that this is taken into account in the selection of materials. Because to enable recycling on a large scale, the fibres of the clothing should not be mixed – i.e. sorted by type – if at all possible. This is because the separation of fibre mixtures is very complex in the recycling process.
In addition, Sympatex made a co-investment in the British company Worn Again Technologies in spring 2019. With the help of this technology, the textile cycle can be closed even faster and one of the major hurdles, namely the necessary sorting purity of the used textiles for the most frequently used textile blend of polyester and cotton, can also be overcome. And “even though there is still a long way to go, this is the next concrete step that will bring us closer to a scalable, commercially viable industrial process that will enable us to move away from the use of finite new resources to the recycling of raw materials,” says Worn Again Technologies founder Cyndi Rhoades.
Closed-loop recycling of textiles is possible
But the mere technical possibility of a recycling process alone is not enough to close the textile cycle – it must also be economical, sustainable and simple. So to ensure that circular production can be maintained in the future, a comprehensive and simple take-back system for textiles must be established – because this is the only way to return clothing to the textile cycle efficiently and in the long term. To provide appropriate logistics for this, we at Sympatex have formed the wear2wear consortium with several industrial partners with precisely this aim: The collection and value-preserving recycling of textiles.