Sustainability in its many different forms is an enduring issue in the textiles industry. Companies are focusing on fair working conditions, innovative materials, ecological production processes, and above all on efforts to bring about a transition from a linear to a circular textiles industry. There are many potential methods for closing cycles, including the re-use of materials or increasing the duration of their use. But even if textiles are re-used or the duration of their use is increased, the question of recycling inevitably arises at some point. What is the situation in this regard today? How easy is it in fact to recycle textiles?
Today, people often speak of recycling when all they are really referring to is textile collection: in Switzerland, around 36,000 tonnes of discarded clothing are collected each year (source: TEXAID), which is equivalent to around 100 tonnes per day. Slightly more than 50 percent of the collected clothing is re-used on the global second-hand clothing market. But this is a form of re-use, not recycling: the clothing is sold, in the best case is worn several more times and is then definitively disposed of, i.e. it normally ends up in a landfill site or, less frequently, in a waste incineration plant. Collected clothing that can no longer be worn is processed into cleaning cloths, coarse wool and insulating materials. But here, too, this form of re-use is not recycling in the strictest sense of the term: here we speak of “down-cycling”, because high-quality textiles end up being transformed into lower quality materials.
Managing textile materials and retaining them in a genuine closed cycle – i.e. recycling in the strictest sense – is another matter altogether. There are currently two recycling technology categories: mechanical and chemical recycling. In the first category, discarded textiles are processed mechanically. The fibres are extracted without the use of chemicals, and are then spun again, or PET is chopped and the resulting granules are melted down and spun into threads. Depending on the area of application, certain losses in terms of quality have to be taken into account with mechanical recycling. The extraction process results in the formation of short fibres, the ends of which protrude further in the spun yarn than the ends of long-staple fibres, and this causes mechanically recycled yarn to feel coarse. This is of little relevance if the yarn is to be used for floor coverings, or if it can also give rise to attractive design aspects. But for delicate shirt fabrics or soft bed linen, mechanically recycled yarns can only be used in small quantities in combination with new yarns.
Sustainability, Member of the management board
"A large number of start-ups are being established throughout Europe (including in Switzerland), which could contribute towards ecologically sound chemical recycling. Bringing together the various solutions to form a uniform process which above all is so low-cost that it can readily compete with the prices of new materials is the main hurdle that has to be overcome in the next few years."
With respect to yarn quality, chemical recycling is more promising, but is also somewhat more complex: here, the basic components of the materials – for example, cellulose in the case of cotton, and oil-based components of polyester – are extracted from the textiles. This means that the materials have to be in the purest possible form, and thus that prior sorting should therefore be carried out where possible. In the meantime, however, for processing mixed fabrics there are already innovative methods, for example a step-by-step process that extracts the various components of the textiles one at a time. The pulp produced from chemical recycling can be used to spin new fibres. In the case of cotton, these are no longer exact matches of the original fibres, but they meet similar quality requirements and can be used in the same areas of application (e.g. as lyocell for clothing). One of the challenges regarding chemical recycling concerns the need to structure the process so that it meets today’s requirements: chemistry offers countless opportunities, but only a small proportion of these are ecologically sound and thus suitable for textile recycling. A large number of start-ups are being established throughout Europe (including in Switzerland), which could contribute towards ecologically sound chemical recycling. Bringing together the various solutions to form a uniform process which above all is so low-cost that it can readily compete with the prices of new materials is the main hurdle that has to be overcome in the next few years.
We asked the following questions:
1) What in your view is the biggest challenge in the field of textile recycling?
2) Are you currently actively working on a solution for the recycling of textiles?
3) In which segments do you envisage the biggest opportunity for new processes to come onto the market for the recycling of textiles?
4) Will specific legal bases be required so that textile recycling can be promoted? If so, which ones?
Jakob Schlaepfer AG
1) For us, the biggest challenge is to secure the necessary consistency of properties in raw materials with recycled components. In the case of re-used textile fibres, for example, the repeated occurrence of colour deviations is a problem. Price sensitivity on the market also represents a challenge. It is not possible to offer all recycled materials at the same price as non-recycled products.
2) We are constantly working on new ideas and processes that can take us a step further in the direction of sustainability. We are also developing various exciting projects that have a high degree of potential.
3) In our view, the greatest potential lies in recycled polyester materials. Here, a great deal has happened in the past few years. We are making constant progress and are coming ever closer to producing a level of quality equivalent to that of new polyester. Furthermore, we are also discovering new materials.
4) Pressure from customers has constantly increased over the past few years, and companies can no longer avoid the need to address the topic of recycling. Companies are now increasingly defining numeric targets that call for a minimum proportion of certified or recycled materials. This is undoubtedly a highly positive development, but at the same time it represents a significant challenge. In the long term, legal provisions will clearly be necessary in order to ensure that recycling is not merely a trend, but will become an essential component of the textiles and clothing industries.
Schlossberg Switzerland AG
1) Unfortunately there are still too few options in Switzerland for down-cycling or recycling used textiles. The use of recycled materials poses challenges in terms of quality and price range.
2) We are currently developing a take-back scheme for used Schlossberg bed linen so that we can prolong the useful life of the high-quality cotton.
3) Unlike mixed fabrics, a pure product like our 100% cotton bed linen is ideally suitable for recycling – here we envisage a great deal of potential.
4) In my view, financial incentives for research and for start-ups active in this field are an important first step. Legal bases will only become effective after recycling processes have become established.
Mammut Sports Group AG
Head of Corporate Responsibility
1) Today there is still a gap between products manufactured in accordance with the principles of recycling economy, and those that are consistently oriented on end-of-life solutions. The majority of used textiles continue to be incinerated or end up in landfills, and only a very small proportion are down-cycled. The biggest challenge is to develop closed material cycles and successfully establish them on the market.
2) Yes, as the inventors of the climbing rope we consider it our duty to offer the mountaineering community a sustainable solution. In addition, our CO2 analysis revealed that ropes account for the highest proportion (13%) of our emissions, and this prompted us to initiate our “close-the-loop” project. We succeeded in creating a recycling infrastructure plus a full value-added chain in order to prevent ropes from being thrown away at the end of their useful life. We are currently turning used ropes into high-quality t-shirts. This project has the potential to be globally scaled, and it received the ISPO Innovations Award in 2021 – another incentive for investing in ideas and business models suitable for recycling.
3) I regard chemical recycling technologies as genuine game-changers. It is not yet possible to mechanically recycle a highly complex jacket comprising numerous material components. If such a complex product can be broken down chemically into its separate components in an ecological manner, this will revolutionise the textiles industry. At present, less complex fibre combinations such as cotton and polyester offer the greatest potential. Here, innovative players like Demeto are on the verge of a breakthrough.
4) Yes, for all players, including manufacturers, investors, distributors, end consumers, politicians. Recycling as an integral part of a circular economy can only succeed if everyone moves in the same direction. Legislation is important in order to provide a clear framework for action, and also enhances planning and investment security. Against this backdrop, initiatives such as the EU Green Deal are expedient and welcome.