Toggle menu
Recycling and the Circularity Conundrum
Mar 9
5 min read

Recycling and the Circularity Conundrum

Header Image Source: Vogue.com · Models at a recycling facility wearing upcycled and regenerated clothing

Summary

  • Overproduction, over-dependence on recycling, lack of education and a lack of government initiative are considered the main obstacles.
  • Breakthroughs in mechanical and chemical processing have emerged – Recyctex and REFIBRA™.
  • The future for circularity would include a mix of approaches that would consider the whole lifecycle of the product, including choice of materials and processes, use and end-of-use.
A circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.
Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Circularity is fast considered to a defining norm for the future of the fashion industry with an innumerable number of companies signing to commitments and pledging to transition their current systems to circular models. Circularity in fashion is a transition from the current linear model of take-make-use-waste to ensure resources are continuously and sustainably in use, especially important on a planet with finite resources.

Major industry commitments around circularity involve the Textile Exchange's 'Accelerating Circularity Project' and Global Fashion Agenda's 'Circular Fashion Commitment', including signatories such as VF Corporation, Gap and Nike.

At the 9th Future Fabrics Expo held recently in London, SupplyCompass attended a series of seminars, one of which sought to examine circularity through the lens of recycling. The panel discussion was expertly moderated by Christina Dean, Founder of Redress, a Hong Kong based environmental NGO, engaging with the fashion industry and consumers to tackle waste. Panel members included representatives from: 

  • The Ellen MacArthur Foundation: The leading figure behind the global circularity movement, and the Make Fashion Circular project for the fashion industry.
  • Advance Denim: A Chinese denim mill, they have partnerships with Lenzing and grow their own cotton in China.
  • Bossa: A Turkish denim producer, well- known for their sustainable foundations, engaging with both pre and post-consumer waste to produce recycled denim, while also using more sound dyeing practices and materials.
  • Recyctex: A Chinese company who claim to be the first company to produce regenerated nylon yarn from fishing nets. They also use mechanical and chemical recycling processes to produce recycled polyester and cotton amongst others.

Jeans Redesign Project

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation gave an introduction to the excessively wasteful linear model and the 560 billion dollar opportunity for the circular economy, as well as introducing their latest project, the Jeans Redesign Project.

Jeans particularly provide both great challenges and opportunities due to their inherent composition. Metal rivets and leather patches make disassembly practically impossible while a majority of jeans are a blend of cotton and spandex, making it much harder to recycle. Consulting 40 experts across sectors and the globe, they looked at key indicators including durability, material health, recyclability, and traceability. 33 companies have signed up to the Jeans Redesign Project and they aim to produce 52,000 jeans that follow all their guidelines.

Circular Systems in Fashion

Key Takeaways

The panel discussed several areas of concern and opportunities alike. The key takeaways were:

Overproduction and an over-dependence on recycling

The global fashion industry is simply unable to meet the continuous and growing demand with current infrastructure. Few recycling processes have been perfected – for instance, in mechanical recycling, fibre length gets reduced each time, successively hampering the quality of the yarn. Fibre blends bring their own set of complexities as most current technologies are equipped to recycle only single fibre or dual fibre blends.

Breakthroughs

Breakthroughs were acknowledged — including chemical recycling by REFIBRA™, a technology employed by Lenzing to produce lyocell using a mixture of virgin wood pulp and post-consumer cotton textile waste, and Recyctex’s own processes. For a more comprehensive overview of companies, read our blog post Material Companies innovating with Waste.

It was unquestionably agreed that recycling is not the ultimate solution and could only form part of a much wider systemic change needed for the fashion industry.

Pricing and government policy

The costs incurred in developing and producing in circular and more responsible ways are undoubtedly higher than conventional production and consumers are not always convinced. Government policies that favour circular production through means such as tax incentives are also particularly beneficial. Here, it is good to be reminded of the UK Government rejecting the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC)’s proposals to levy a mere one penny charge on every piece of clothing sold, to fund better collection and sorting facilities for fast fashion. The government has explained that this would not be considered until 2025. This is one of many examples across the globe of a lack of serious resolve on the part of global governments to take the impacts of the industry seriously.

Several other challenges

One panel member explained that some areas of the industry are hesitant to brand their product as recycled due to cultural preconceptions around old or reused textiles. This is particularly true in Asian countries with traditional belief systems around ‘old’ and ‘new.’ A lack of general education in sustainability across the industry was also noted. Sustainability in fashion being a complex, multi-dimensional issue can often be generalized, oversimplified or misunderstood.

Transitioning to circularity

So how can companies consciously try to integrate circularity in their operations?

Choose mono-materials

Both natural and synthetic fibres are recyclable by themselves, but make it very hard to recycle when mixed together, with existing systems and infrastructure. The most common iteration of this is fabrics made of polyester mixed with cotton. It is also important to note that most natural fibres lose their strength with successive recycling and often have to be mixed with virgin fibres to maintain quality.

Increase the use of waste or recycled materials in your product

There exist many different sources to obtain recycled material, including pre and post-consumer waste. Cupro, for example, is obtained from waste cotton linter, a by-product of cotton processing, while ECONYL® is regenerated nylon made from fishing nets that is infinitely recyclable. If you must include synthetic materials, aim to use recycled materials that can further be recycled once the product reaches its end-of-life. The Global Recycled Standard (GRS) and Cradle-to-Cradle Certified™ are the leading standards for recycled materials and complete circularity, respectively.

Monitor production processes

Investing in renewable energy and closed-loop systems of production that can ensure water and chemicals are continuously recycled is equally important. Lenzing, for example, uses recovered energy from non-recyclable waste while recovering and reusing 99% of chemical solvent.

Consider the use of the product itself

Recycled polyester is made from PET bottles and has been fairly hyped. While they certainly help to tackle the single-use plastic problem, most garments shed hundreds of thousands of micro-fibres when washed. These micro-fibres enter our waterways and our oceans and also enter food streams when swallowed by fish. Micro-fibres from synthetic sources are problematic as they are essentially minute bits of plastic, contributing to up to 30% of marine pollution. Aim to use recycled polyester only for products that cannot be washed (dry-cleaned, for example) or will not shed fibres (the sole of shoes, for example).

Consider end-of-use

Take into account what happens when the consumer decides to stop using the product and dispose of it. If your company does not have a take-back scheme for your product and cannot guarantee that it will be recycled by you, prepare for the possibility of the product to end up in a landfill. Can your product be disposed of safely in the natural environment without it polluting land or waterways? Biodegradability should be considered a minimum while compostability is optimum.

Consider a mix of approaches to embed circularity

Circularity, by itself, can be approached from several perspectives far beyond the realms of recycling. Design for Longevity (considering the length of time and the number of ways in which the product can be used), Design for Disassembly (considering how various components made from different raw materials can be taken apart for individual recycling), Life Cycle Assessments, take-back schemes and mending and repair are few of the many approaches that form part of the wider systems design that is to be implemented.

While exciting innovation can definitely lead the way, it is up to every stakeholder in the system to assess the role they play and actively contribute to help revolutionise the industry.
Nayanika Bharadwaj
Marketing & Communications Assistant at SupplyCompass
Share this article

Nayanika is a designer, writer and illustrator whose work spans research, storytelling and strategy for sustainability in fashion. Her interests specifically lie in sustainable supply chains, craft production/innovation, circular economies and design for social innovation. She graduated from the prestigious MA Fashion Futures program at London College of Fashion with a Distinction in 2019, and has researched at and written for Centre for Sustainable Fashion and Fashion Revolution, amongst others.

Get started with our platform

Let’s stay
in touch!

Everything you need to know about sustainable supply chains, including industry news and product updates, delivered straight to your inbox.