Recyclable products play an immensely important role when it comes to fulfilling our responsibility for the future. In this blog post, we look at the challenges of textile recycling, where used textiles are processed so that they can be reused as a raw material for new clothing. This approach deviates from the current standard, which mainly focuses on processing recycled PET bottles into polyester products.
1. Global stats about recycling
Over the past two decades, global fiber production has nearly doubled. In 2023, it reached a new high at 116 million tons. If current trends continue, a further increase to 147 million tons is expected by 2030. 97% of those fibers are virgin fibers, meaning new resources are used.
Those numbers result in more than 100 billion items of clothing and 23 billion pairs of shoes produced every year. At the same time, 73% of worn clothing ends up in landfills or is incinerated. This is an unimaginable waste of raw materials and a massive waste production.
However, to be in line with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C pathway and achieve a 45% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from raw material production by 2030, a transition to recycled fibers as raw materials is mandatory. This involves a substantial reduction in the industry’s dependence on virgin fossil-based synthetics.
Textile-to-Textile recycling is one solution to lower the use of virgin materials and build up a circular economy at the same time. However, with less than 1% of the global fiber market in 2022, it is a promising but still underutilized niche in our industry. Why is that? And what exactly is textile-to-textile recycling?
1. What is textile-to-textile recycling?
Textile-to-textile recycling is the process of turning textile waste into new fibers that are then used to create new clothes or other textile products. A synonym that is equally used is fiber-to-fiber recycling:
Textile-to-textile recycling refers to both pre-consumer and post-consumer recycling. Pre-consumer – also described as post-industrial recycling – describes material diverted from the waste stream during the manufacturing process. Post-consumer recycling describes material generated by end-consumers, e.g. households or commercial, industrial, and institutional facilities.
The recycling process includes activities such collecting, sorting, shredding (mechanical recycling) or selective dissolving (chemical recycling) and transforming fabrics and old textiles. Especially for mechanical recycling homogeneous or nearly homogeneous feedstock in terms of fiber type and color is needed, as mechanical recycling does not involve automatic decolorization. This is one of the challenges of textile-to-textile recycling that will be described in more detail at a later point.
By extending the life cycle of textiles and minimizing the need for new raw materials, waste and the environmental impact of new products can be massively reduced. In other words, recycling is a great way to capture value and loop it back to the system to eventually become input for something new.
At Sympatex, every product with a pure Polyester upper fabric made of 100% recycled textiles is marked with a FIBER2FIBER icon. The development of fiber2fiber articles is part of our Sympatex „Agenda 2030“ with the aim of closing the textile cycle as quickly as possible. By 2030, 100% of the processed raw materials for the entire Sympatex laminate portfolio are to come from the closed textile cycle.
2. How far has the industry come in textile-to-textile recycling?
Not far enough, looking at recycling stats! Many textiles end up in areas where they shouldn’t, mainly landfills and incineration.
Systems for textile-to-textile recycling are in development but are estimated to account for less than 1% of all recycled polyester. Recycled polyester is still primarily made from plastic bottles (99%). The interest in and use of ocean or ocean-bound plastic is also increasing, but the overall market share is still extremely low and amounts to less than 0.01% of all recycled polyester.
Fortunately, as far as research is concerned, a lot is happening along the entire value chain. This requires considering various concepts, encompassing the production methods of items, the materials used in their construction, and the way these products are worn.
Sympatex for example is involved in the Accelerating Circularity Project Europe (ACPE). The project was set up to accelerate the transition from linear to circular production in the textile industry by analyzing the recycling infrastructure in Europe. Together with other stakeholders, e.g. brands and recyclers, we are trying to find out where our systems are still stuck and identify specific opportunities and weaknesses in the current PES recycling infrastructure.
What’s complicated about textile-to-textile recycling?
Textile recycling is highly complex. It is not like throwing away a piece of paper and shredding it to become recycled paper. Looking at a jacket with all its zippers blended into different layers of textile, you directly understand the challenge we are currently facing.
Challenges that prevent closed loop systems:
Material Diversity: Textiles come in various forms, from natural fibers like cotton and wool to synthetic ones such as polyester. Each material requires specific recycling methods.
Blended Fabrics: Many textiles are made from a blend of different fibers, sometimes glued together, making it challenging and costly to separate and recycle them effectively.
Contamination: Textiles often contain contaminants like zippers, buttons, or dyes, which need removal before recycling. Contaminants can affect the quality of the recycled material.
Chemical Treatments: Some textiles undergo chemical treatments during manufacturing, posing difficulties in recycling and potentially causing environmental concerns.
Technological Constraints: Advanced recycling technologies are required to efficiently process and recycle certain textiles, and not all regions have access to these technologies.
Consumer Awareness: The lack of consumer awareness regarding the recycling of textiles and the importance of separating textiles for recycling is a challenge.
Collection and Sorting: Efficient collection and sorting systems are necessary to handle the vast amounts of textiles for recycling, and developing such systems can be logistically challenging.
Addressing these complexities requires a combination of technological advancements, public awareness, and comprehensive recycling infrastructure.
4. Recyclability at Sympatex
From today’s perspective, the most important consideration for mechanical textile-to-textile recycling is the purity of the material: Products made from a single material are much easier to recycle than blended fabrics.
With Sympatex’ goal to fully re>close the loop, we decided very early on to focus on this specification. Thus, the raw material for our membranes and laminates is 100% polyester, regardless of how many layers the laminate has. This mono-material strategy means that our laminates can be recycled without any problems and can already keep up with the status quo of simple PET recycling – except that the recycled yarns do not have to be sourced from another industry (bottles) but can be used from our own. This is textile-to-textile recycling.
With Polyester being our only material, we also use the only plastic within the functional textile industry that can currently be recycled efficiently, and, thanks to its low consumption of water, chemicals and CO2, it additionally has the smallest ecological footprint.
Our goal is to only use textile-to-textile recycled material to produce new membranes and laminates in the future. This way we can close the loop completely again without needing to take away resources from another industry.
The challenges we are facing are described above. However, with our research membership in the ACPE project, we actively address the challenge of a functioning recycling infrastructure. We advocate the establishment of collective collection systems for textiles, like those we already have for used glass in Germany. An individual take-back system for individual brands, in our opinion, is not expedient: too much effort, too little volume.
With our mono-material products we already have the best materials to recycle at hand. However, our laminates have not yet result in a finished textile product. In the textile industry products are usually made up of features, functions, treatments, coatings, zippers, buttons and colours which leads to a mixture of materials that combined have special properties. This makes the recyclability of a textile product extremely difficult. We therefore encourage our brand partners to also follow a mono-material strategy to reduce the complexity of recycling processes. To support our brand partners and their product designers, we have created an Eco Design Guide. The Eco Design Guide features a selection of concrete recommendations, solutions, and tangible strategies to ensure your designs stand up to a circular textile economy.
Get inspired and join our journey. Read our comprehensive Eco Design Guide and learn how „Circular Design” can bring about sustainable change!
Our key takeaways:
Textile-to-textile recycling is based on the principle that a textile that undergoes a recycling process becomes a textile again. In a world where recycling is optimized, there is no waste but feedstock for new products. That’s how nature works, but we humans have missed this part.
- Textile-to-textile recycling is the only solution for a circular textile industry.
- Pure mono-materials are the best prerequisite for recycling!
- Polyester is currently the only plastic in the functional textiles industry that can be recycled efficiently.