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Recycled fibers are already used in the clothing industry, but mainly those made from PET (polyethylene terephthalate) obtained from beverage bottles, among other things. Around three-quarters of the granulate produced from used PET bottles is utilized by fiber manufacturers, according to Dr. Andreas Bartl of the Particle Technology, Recycling Technology and Technology Assessment Research Group at the Vienna University of Technology, Austria. In contrast, recycled textiles account for only one percent! (Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017). The circular economy is failing because recycling textile fibers is more expensive than producing new ones.

Bartl conducts research with his colleagues Emanuel Boschmeier and Wolfgang Ipsmiller in the EU project SCIRT (System Circularity & Innovative Recycling of Textiles). In a consortium with 18 research partners from five countries, they aim to overcome barriers to textile recycling to create a true, sustainable circular fashion economy.

Recycling of textiles from two or more fibers (c) TU Vienna

Collecting used textiles separately

To date, however, even the separate collection of used textiles is not yet mandatory. Bartl says: “Currently, this is done on a voluntary basis because used textiles are considered household waste under EU Directive 2008/851. But that will change beginning in 2025, when collecting used textiles will become mandatory.” How much must be collected is currently still open, he said. In the case of electrical appliances, for example, 65 percent must be collected from those purchased three years earlier (Directive 2012/19/EU). Whether there will be additional requirements is still uncertain. One possible requirement could be that, for example, 30 percent of used textiles collected must consist of recycled material.

From a technical perspective, there are two focal points in the SCIRT project. One is to bring an environmentally friendly recycling process for blended fibers to an industrial level; the other is to develop recyclable design and production practices.

Recycling textiles in an environmentally friendly way

What makes recycling so complex are textiles made from two or more fibers. Blended fibers are said to give textiles special characteristics, such as improved wear and care or greater durability. One of the most common fiber blends is cotton/polyester. The problem with blended textiles is that they are difficult to separate in recycling. Existing separation methods are not yet marketable in terms of technology, process or price.

Bartl and his colleagues’ task is to change this. They want to bring a green recycling process for mixed fibers to an industrial level. The process was developed jointly with the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences (BOKU) in Vienna, Austria. It is based on enzymes from bacteria.

Also interesting: Natural enzymes revolutionize plastic recycling

This process makes it possible to recover the polyester. The enzyme splits the cellulose from the cotton into small molecules and converts it into glucose. This can then be further processed in the chemical industry, for example. The remaining polyester fibers are melted down and processed into granules. This is the starting point for putting them to a new use. The enzymes are already available industrially on a large scale. Existing processes can also be used in the re-granulation of polyester. Bartl and his team will optimize the process and make it usable on a large scale.

Avoiding aggravating effects

Another hurdle to cost-effective recycling is traditional design and production practices. Examples include the metal rivets and buttons on the pockets of jeans and the leather labels on the waistband. Removing the metal and leather would be too costly, so usually only the legs of the pants are recycled and the upper part is thrown away. This is how the Belgian project partner HNST describes it on its website.

SCIRT aims to find solutions to problems of this kind. In a true and lasting circular economy, materials that are difficult or impossible to recycle should not be produced in the first place. This, too, should be achieved in SCIRT. Bartl says, “Together with our industry partners, we determine which criteria specific textiles must meet. We then modify them so they can be recycled. In return, we can ensure that certain fiber combinations are no longer used.”

Supporting policies

So much for the technical challenges in recycling textiles. The researchers will also consult with the European Commission to contribute groundwork for supportive policy instruments. This will enable them to set realistic and more ambitious targets, Bartl says.

One possible environmental policy instrument is extended producer responsibility (EPR). This would assign responsibility to manufacturers for managing the downstream phase of a product. It would be regulated by fees levied on any products placed on the market. Those designed for the circular economy would incur lower fees. This way, incentives can be created for upstream design changes.

At the end of the project, there would be six basic types of clothing that can be recycled, ranging from underwear to sportswear to uniforms. All types would meet all required functions and be affordable for most people.

Understanding consumer behavior

The goal of the research project, however, is not recycling simply to justify the industry’s rapid changes in product lines, Bartl says: “There used to be two to four collections per year, now there are up to 25. That can’t go on.” Instead, he says, the goal is to bring fewer textiles to market that are used longer. According to a British study, 75 percent of used textiles fall into the categories of: didn’t like, didn’t want, didn’t fit. Only 19 percent of used textiles are given away because they are actually worn out. “Even if you significantly increase the lifespan of clothing, you could only address that 19 percent. There is no solution for the other 75 percent,” Bartl complains. This is all the more dramatic because the rapid change of product lines produces surplus stocks that “disappear” as soon as the new items arrive. Up to 30 percent are burned before they are sold, according to the researcher, although there is no official data on this.

That’s where consumer responsibility comes in. To include their perspective, the SCIRT project is setting up citizen labs at various European locations. With the help of an online participation platform, consumption behavior will also be researched. Consumer perceptions, motivation and the emotions that drive purchases as well as the use and disposal of textiles will be examined.

SCIRT is coordinated by VITO, an independent Flemish research organization in the cleantech and sustainable development sector.

Also of interest: Recycling breakthrough for clothing made with polyamide