Higher value recycling

Woensdag 18 Juli 2012

From: Government Gazette June 2012

Worldwide the textile industry is generally understood to be one of the most polluting industries, using
up natural resources and creating a high impact on the environment during the production process, with
its consumption of enormous quantities of water and pesticides. However, high value recycling of post-
consumer garments and textiles has so far been only marginal because of the low prices of raw materials
and the high costs and complexity of sorting and recycling. The Textiles4Textiles (T4T) automatic sorting
machine enables a higher value recycling of second-hand garments and textiles, because of its ability to
automatically sort both on fibre composition and color. This will enable the textile industry to make a big
step forward in creating a more sustainable industry.  

Disposing of old clothes is emotional for people. We feel guilty when we throw away a garment which is still perfectly wearable. Research which KICI Foundation in the Netherlands has carried out for several years shows that citizens prefer to discard second-hand textiles that are still good enough to wear by donating them to charitable organizations, so that other people can wear them. The rest they throw away in the normal waste bin. However, it appears to be quite difficult for people to decide which garments to donate and which garments to throw away. In the Netherlands almost 70 million kilos of textiles are separately collected, whereas approximately 135 million kilos end up in the waste.  Two thirds of this is perfectly fit for re-use or recycling, according to the Dutch branch organization for textile collectors and recyclers VHT (Vereniging Herwinning Textiel). Also in other European countries, such as the UK, enormous amounts of clothing go to landfill each year. For example M&S  has estimated this to be an amount of around 1 billion items each year in the UK (source: www.ecotextile.com ).

On May 7th, 2012 the Dutch VHT and partners launched a project under the name Fashion2, which aims to empower citizens to bring all their second-hand garments and textiles to textile collection bins, even if they are worn out. In the UK M&S in cooperation with Oxfam works on a similar concept, requesting citizens to bring their unwanted garments whenever they buy a new one. More and more brands, retailers and governments see the necessity of starting textile recycling projects, to avoid textiles ending up in landfill or incinerators, but also to create closed loop systems, in which new garments are manufactured with the use of recycled fibres. In this way less water, fewer pesticides, and less farmland is used whilst consumer demand for fashion can be met, now and in the future. The challenge for the recycling industry is to find a way to profitably separate the dif ferent garments, especially when citizens also throw worn out garments in the textile collection bins.

With the present system of hand sorting, about 50% of all garments are of a good enough quality to be sold in second-hand markets in Eastern Europe and  Africa. This is the part which is profitable for sorting companies. The other 50% are being used for low value recycling, such as insulation materials, fillings or wiping cloth. This is the part which is not profitable for sorting companies, because the cost of sorting is higher than the sales price of these materials.

The Textiles4Textiles (T4T) automatic sorting machine makes it possible to automatically sort the lower quality garments in such a way that higher value recycling becomes possible. For example the automatic sorting of 100% cotton will make it possible to manufacture jeans in which recycled fibres are used made out of post-consumer cotton textile waste.

The first – industrial scale – T4T sorting machine has been developed during the past three years by a consortium of SMEs
under the name Textiles4Textiles. Each partner in the T4T consortium represents part of the value chain of second-hand textiles: collection, sorting, recycling and manufacturing. The first partner in the chain is KICI Foundation, the biggest charity collector of second-hand textiles in the Benelux. The second partner, Wieland Textiles, is responsible for the sorting process. Therefore the T4T sorting machine is installed at the premises Wieland in Wormerveer, so that hand sorting and automatic sorting can be part of an integrated process. 

The technical core of the machine was developed by the German companies LZH, specialized in Near Infra Red (NIR)
technology, and m-u-t AG, specialized in the hardware and interface of the detection device. The next partner in the chain,
Frankenhuis, is specialized in the unraveling of second-hand textiles into fibres. Groenendijk Bedrijfskleding, a sales company specialized in work wear, has developed a work wear collection in which partly post-consumer recycled fibres are used. Work on Progress was involved in the project for the purpose of building the business case for the machine as well as marketing. Lastly ENVIU made a film to promote the project and involved students in the carrying out of various research activities.

In order to be able to carry out this innovative project with the partners of  T4T - being mainly SMEs – a subsidy was obtained from EU’s Eco Innovation program. With 3.4 million jobs in eco-industries and a growing demand for environmental
products and services, Europe has the potential to meet the environmental challenges of the future. The EU’s Eco-innovation initiative was set up to tap this potential to the fullest by giving clever ideas and new environmentally-friendly solutions a chance to reach an EU-wide market. Eco-innovation boosts economic growth whilst protecting the environment. The T4T project contributes to this European ambition by creating new possibilities for the textile industry and creating jobs in both sorting and recycling companies. In addition there is the positive environmental impact of the usage of recycled fibres. For the production of a pair of jeans for example in which 50% recycled fibres are used, 25% less energy is required in the production process.  Almost 50% less water is used, because there is no need to grow virgin cotton. Moreover around 40% fewer chemicals are needed, predominantly pesticides that are used in growing cotton.

A positive effect on the environment, creating jobs and economic growth sounds great, but will textile recycling be something that consumers can appreciate? Leading UK based research company Ipsos Mori already concluded in 2007 that recycling is a success story with rapid shifts in parts of the country, although in their qualitative research they found that citizens question whether their recycling leads to any good or whether it is simply landfilled. Qualitative research in the Netherlands executed by KICI Foundation shows that people do not spontaneously think about the environment or recycling in relation to second-hand textiles. Most people think that second-hand textiles are collected and donated to people in need. When people are informed about the fact that only part of the second-hand textiles can be worn again, they are positively surprised that the other part can be recycled. A higher public awareness around the environmental impact of the textiles industry is definitely needed. Promoting more environmentally friendly choices might lead to a positive brand preference. Whether the usage of recycled fibres will lead to a positive buying preference of consumers is still too early to say . The benefits for the industry as a whole are obvious. Using recycled fibres is a good alternative to the use of virgin fibres, especially when high quality sorting and recycling improves the quality and length of the recycled fibre. Moreover the prices are expected to be competitive to the prices of virgin fibres, thus creating a new supply chain in a market where demand more and more outgrows supply.

The reaction of the industry to an alternative for the highly fluctuating prices of virgin cotton is positive. We expect fashion
brands to be open for this development and have worked on a small scale with a major European denim brand on a market
introduction. These first steps are ways to create awareness in the fashion industry. A story which definitely needs to be

During a conference titled ‘Closing the Loop’ which takes place in the Netherlands on November 14th and 15th, 2012, the T4T sorting machine will be demonstrated to the public and various business cases will be presented. For more information, please contact Ellen van den Adel of Work on Progress by mail to  ellen@workonprogress.nl.

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