The global demand for textiles has never been as high as it is today—but recycling must catch up, experts said at ISRI’s “Trends and Outlook for the Textile Recycling Industry” webinar on May 4. An audience of recyclers, Commerce Department officials, and others heard the latest information about global textile recycling trends and legislation.

Jose Gonzalez, senior principal at Stockholm-based AFRY Management Consulting, explained that in the last 30 years, the world population increased 30%, and textile fiber production more than doubled. The 1990s low-cost “fast fashion” trend combined with the push of polymers replacing natural fibers like wool meant that while in the early 2000s a garment was worn 200 times on average, by 2015 that number dropped to 70, he said.

Less than 1% of the material used to make new clothing is then recycled into clothing. “The majority of the recycled textile stream goes into lower-value applications,” Gonzalez says. “Although it’s good that we have some recycling … these are downgrade uses like insulation material, mattress filling, etc., and it makes [materials] more difficult to recycle again.”

Combined with the loss of fibers during manufacturing, collection, processing, and other factors, 73% of produced textiles go into landfills or are incinerated, he says. But textile recycling is supported by existing and upcoming regulations, and brand owners are responding to consumer demand by setting sustainability targets. For example:

  • China has banned the import of solid waste, including textile waste, and plans to recycle 25% of textile waste and churn out 2 metric tons of recycled fiber by 2025.
  • EU members must establish systems for the separate collection of textiles by 2025, and the European Commission in March published the EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles.
  • Although there is no national U.S. policy on recycling, the Commerce Department just released a report on the textiles landscape in the U.S. Some states and cities have set used clothing and postconsumer textiles targets. The Council for Textile Recycling in Abingdon, Md., has started an initiative to achieve 0% textiles in landfills nationwide by 2037.

Varpu Näsilä, a Vantaa-Finland-based special adviser to AFRY on the circular economy and waste-to-energy, described textiles recycling’s major separation technologies: mechanical, chemical, and thermal. Near-infrared sorting technology dominates the space. “The common challenge to all of these recycling technologies is the availability of sorted recycled [materials],” she says.

Other challenges include design for recycling, building the necessary infrastructure for efficient collection and sorting, and the ability to process natural-polymer blends. But steps are being taken toward circularity of textiles. From 2023 onwards it will be mandatory for Finnish municipalities to separately collect postconsumer textiles. Turku, Finland-based Lounais-Suomen Jätehuolto is developing collection and mechanical recycling of postconsumer textiles with government funding.

“[Lounais-Suomen Jätehuolto] has been concentrating all of the steps in the value chain, so they have developed a nationwide collection system, local presorting, and then add[ed] the missing mechanical step in the chain,” Näsilä says.

Adam Minter, former Scrap magazine writer, Bloomberg columnist, and author of books about recycling including “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale,” pointed out textiles were key commodities to historical recycling trade organizations like ISRI’s predecessor the National Association of Waste Material Dealers as far back as 1915. “I’m not sure how textiles and the rest of the recycling industry got separated; I think it happened sometime in the 1930s. But it’s my contention they’re coming back together,” he says.

According to Minter, Africa and South Asia are the top destinations for used clothing. Garments from cold-weather climates like Finland are valued in regions such as Africa and South Asia because they’re not worn much by the initial purchasers before being recycled. He said most textile recycling still depends on hand sorting and separation, but a sea change is taking place.

In the northern Indian city of Panipat, weaving and the recycling of wool into shoddy, made from loosely woven textiles that could be pulled apart, has declined in the past 30 years as the global marketplace has embraced polyester fleece. From 600 shoddy factories, Panipat is down to 50. “You have an increasing competition from plastics in the textile stream, and no real way to recycle them,” Minter explains.

During COVID-19, people in lockdown all over the world cleaned out their closets, so there are plenty of secondhand clothes to supply recyclers. “The secondhand clothing market is critically dependent upon globalization and container flows, and lately those containers are not flowing, and that’s causing real problems,” Minter says.

ISRI regularly offers informational gatherings for members and nonmembers to learn more about developments in the industry. For more information, check the Events section of the ISRI website. Information about textiles is also in the ISRI Specifications.

Photo courtesy of Storyblocks.

Dan Hockensmith

Dan Hockensmith

I'm a native Ohioan who since 2014 has called Maryland home. My background includes print, broadcast, and digital journalism; government contracting; marketing communications; and nonprofit advocacy.