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Textile recycling in the European Union

87% of textile products are incinerated or landfilled, accounting for 7% of overall waste.

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On average, a single person in the EU throws away 11 kg of textiles per year. In 2017 alone, textile consumption generated 654 kg of CO2 equivalent per person.

The democratisation of fashion due to the rise of “fast fashion” has led to an average person in Europe buying 40% more than 25 years ago and wearing 36% less clothing than just 15 years ago. Moreover, a single person in the EU throws away an average of 11 kg of textiles per year. 

 

Where do these tonnes of discarded clothes end up?

 

87% of textile products are incinerated, or disposed of in landfills, accounting for 7% of global waste. Additionally, up to 35 tonnes of CO2 equivalent are generated for every tonne of textile waste. In 2017 only in the EU, textile consumption generated 654 kg of CO2 equivalent per person.

How is the textile recycling process in the EU?

 

Collection:

Of the 6 million tonnes of textiles discarded annually in the EU, 75% end up in landfills or incinerators, the rest goes through recycling plants such as Soex in Germany. Thanks to its link with the I:CO collection model (based on consumer incentives), it processes around 700 tonnes of textile garments from more than 90 countries every day. 

 

Sorting:

Items are sorted according to garment type, components and quality. Those in good conditions are reused, i.e. donated or sold through the second-hand markets. 

 

Recycling:

3.1 Low quality recycling or ” Downcycling”:

Items that do not meet the quality criteria are given a second life in the construction, automotive or cleaning products industry, turned into new fabrics or non-textile fibres. In this way, articles are recycled and transformed into lower quality articles. 

 

3.2 Upcycling:

Only 1% of global textiles are recycled into new garments. This closed-loop process involves transforming one item into another of equal or better quality.  

What textile recycling mechanisms exist?

 

  • Primary recycling:

It involves maintaining the original form of products to give them a second life in other industries. 

 

  • Mechanical or secondary recycling:

Single-fibre textile waste is shredded and broken into smaller fibres, resulting in lower quality yarns. To achieve higher quality, they can be homogeneously combined (depending on the colour and type of blend) with longer virgin fibres.

Currently, post-consumer waste is often heterogeneous and has low quality, which makes fibre blends very difficult to recycle. Textiles that can be mechanically recycled include pure cotton, pure polyester and wool. 

 

  • Chemical or tertiary recycling:

This is the most widely used method for processing synthetic fibres ( 60% of textile materials worldwide are synthetic). 

It consists of depolymerising the fibres into molecules that can be reused. It requires more energy and is more complex than recycling pure fibres due to the different properties of fabrics.

 

How can textile recycling processes be improved? 

 

  • Improve infrastructures: create infrastructures that allow collection of used garments, encourage consumer participation and enable post-consumer recycling at scale. 
  • Innovation in chemical recycling: take advantage of new technologies to improve the recycling of synthetic items. Currently, most recycled polyester comes from PET bottles rather than from other garments.  
  • Circular systems: extending the use and life cycle of garments, avoiding the use of chemicals and creating new business models that allow garments to remain within closed processes.
  • Ecodesign: design products taking into account their durability and recyclability. Creating garments from a single fibre, with higher quality or based on the characteristics of fibre blends will help to facilitate recycling processes. 

 

Thank you for your interest in this article, find out how to design your garments in a sustainable way with Dcycle and move your company towards circularity contributing to a positive impact.