Challenges in Fabric Recycling

The concept of recycling textiles is not new because it has been used for a long time, but the volume recycled has been insignificant in comparison to the amount produced. This is mostly due to a number of factors, including consumer consumption and disposal, production procedures, the use of blends and synthetic fibers in clothing, and a lack of advanced technology. 

Textile products are made with the idea that they will be used by the consumer and then discarded when they have served their purpose. However, as a result of modernization, consumer behavior has changed so drastically that people are purchasing goods more frequently even when there is little need for them. With the rise of fast fashion in the late 1990s, this behavior has increased. As a result, there is a rise in the market’s demand for textile items, the production of which requires raw materials. After that, used products are disposed of often and, in the absence of a recycling mechanism, end up in landfills with no prospect of being recycled. 

Another party to blame for the lack of recycling in the apparel sector is the term “Katrans,” which refers to cutting waste. All the various forms of production waste are gathered together in these industries since they frequently do not have an effective trash disposal system. Along with oils and grime, these include fabrics made of various fibers and constructions, marker paper, base paper, tapes, etc. This has been referred to as pollutants of textile recycling because it causes the waste’s quality to significantly decline, making it difficult to separate and recycle. After going through hours of separation, these combinations are subsequently sent to different recyclers for degrading or to be used as fuel for cremation. 

The use of blends has also caused problems for textile recycling because the majority of the process was created or intended with one primary fiber in mind, but this percentage of fabric is insignificant in comparison to the volume of blends produced globally. Furthermore, modern fabrics are made from a wide range of man-made fibers with varying processing. The recycling technology is not advanced enough to recycle variations in fiber content, rendering them useless in such cases. 

Even if both of the preceding factors are correctly defined and changes are made in favour of textile recycling, the bottleneck will always be technological limitations. Until recently, mechanical recycling produced fibers with no potential for upcycling, resulting in products such as rags, matrices, and so on. However, modern machinery can extract much higher quality fiber that can be used to make wearable fabrics. Furthermore, there is no commercially viable way to recycle polyester fabric, so it is frequently incinerated for boilers. Because of its molecular structure, viscose recycling is still not recyclable mechanically or chemically. 

Aside from the aforementioned factors, there are others that limit the development and accessibility of textile recycling, such as textile waste collection, a lack of circular initiatives within organizations, a lower demand for sustainability, and so on. Only by addressing these issues can progress be made toward realizing the full potential of textile recycling. 

The majority of the discussion centred on the recycling of pre-consumer textile waste, owing to the fact that these wastes are very easy to recycle when channeled through the proper recycling process. Recycling of post-consumer goods, on the other hand, raises a number of issues, and this article will attempt to shed some light on those issues while also suggesting potential solutions and raising awareness of better apparel consumption.

What exactly is post-consumer textile waste?

Post-consumer textile wastes are garments, home furnishing textile products, or any other textile material that is discarded after it has served its purpose. Because consumer goods encompass a wide range of products, this article will focus on apparel for the majority of its discussion. Apparel is an important part of our lifestyle, and our consumption has grown over time. 

An average consumer now consumes 60% more clothing than they did 15 years ago, with each item kept half as long or discarded after only seven to ten wears. To put it into perspective, less than 1% of clothing is recycled into the same or similar quality application, while the remaining 12% is down cycled to inferior products, resulting in a $500 billion loss due to the lack of recycling of apparel products. 

This begs the question, why aren’t these garments recycled? What is preventing the industry from using these garments to produce high-quality goods? The following is my response.

The issue with Fabric recycling

At the moment, apparel products include dresses, t-shirts, shirts, trousers, jackets, undergarments, and so on. Made from cotton, linen, silk, wool, cellulosic fibers such as viscose, modal, lyocell, polyester, acrylic, elastane, spandex, and so on, and to top it all off, there are blends which are a mix of different fibers to achieve different fabric properties depending on needs. From the perspective of the average consumer, the options for garments are vast, but when it comes to recycling, each fiber would require its own recycling process, raising the difficulty level to a whole new level.

To add to the cut, for blends, the first step would require the blend to be separated before recycling, and for different blends, different processes would be required, making recycling even more difficult. Furthermore, these recycling processes must be designed so that no fibers are degraded; otherwise, the purpose of closed-loop recycling is defeated. More information about recycling cotton and cotton blends can be found here.

Then there are the fabric colours. Previously, there were only a few dyes, and they were mostly based on natural compounds, making them environmentally friendly. However, with the introduction of synthetic dyes, the apparel market has become flooded with various colours of various types of dyes. There are also pigments that are used in various types of printing. These chemicals are mostly composed of different compounds and pose numerous challenges to chemical recycling. Because this is a highly sensitive process, such compounds frequently have a negative impact on its efficiency. Dyed fabric is frequently not a problem for mechanical recycling. Because of these dyes, a thorough wash or bleaching is frequently required to remove the chemicals, which also affects the fiber quality.

Product trust is also becoming an issue, as the number of unidentified apparel currently outnumbers trusted products from reputable brands. There is no guarantee for the fibers used, blend ratios, chemicals used in dyes and prints, and so on without such trust, which creates a lot of variables during textile recycling. These variations impede the recycling process, reduce its efficiency, or even render it impossible. 

Garment accessories also play an important role in impeding textile recycling. At the moment, any garment in your closet is almost certain to have some form of accessory. These accessories include sewing thread, buttons, zippers, tags, mobelin tape, lining material, and so on. This, like the others mentioned above, does not completely disrupt the recycling process, but it must be removed to ensure consistent and high-quality product, adding an extra step to the process. 

Finally, there is a disadvantage to textile waste collection. Even before considering recycling, the first challenge is to collect garments in good condition. An idle collection system should be accessible to all people, clustered according to different fibers and colours, and inspire people to recycle, as recycling is limited. 

Other factors, such as poor fabric quality after prolonged use, a lack of proper technology, and so on, have all contributed to making recycling your clothes even more difficult. There are solutions to such a diverse set of problems, but they appear far-fetched at the moment.

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