H&M is praised for its efforts in closed loop technology and recycling

H&M is praised for its efforts in closed loop technology and recycling

The concept of the closed loop – where a fabric is taken back mechanically to its original fibres and re-used – remains a key goal for the clothing and textile industry that presents a range of technical challenges.

Yet several companies are still working towards creating such a loop. The need is pressing: according to the US statistical journal Fiber Organon, global annual production of major fibres stands at 78m tons, a five-fold increase from ten years ago.

The main fibres of interest are cotton, polyester and wool. Of these, synthetic fibres account for 45m tons, of which 80% is polyester. That is a lot of waste to recycle, once used clothes and accessories are discarded.

But mechanically recycled fibre from post-consumer clothing is being used in a range of small-scale initiatives. For example, a coat launched by UK retailer Marks & Spencer contains fibre from ‘schwopped’ clothing collected in M&S stores.

Meanwhile, a Dutch company, Sympany, has incorporated recycled denim from clothing into new denim yarn. Sympany says it collects 20m kilos of discarded textiles each year, and that what it deems not suitable for re-wear is re-used as a raw material, including for new yarns.

Nick Morley, associate director at Oakdene Hollins, the UK-based sustainable supply chain consultant, is sceptical of progress so far. "We've made virtually no progress on this over the past 100 years," he says. "The main challenges are the logistics, shipping something from Europe out to East Asia and North Africa where most of the recycling supply chain exists."

However, he singles out efforts by H&M who are manufacturing jeans from recycled post-consumer denim. "They seem to be looking to do this in an enduring way."

Also, the Japanese company Teijin has developed a closed loop mechanism, Eco Circle. Teijin claims that its recycling technology makes it possible to refine old polyester into new raw material polyester equivalent to that made from petroleum. 

The company says that its Eco Circle range of recycled polyester fibre is suitable for green procurement and eco-mark labels. These benchmarks are achieved by an 80% reduction in energy consumption during the recycling process; and separating out and re-using additives and colourants.

Morley says Teijin's work is difficult to emulate in materials other than polyester: "For cotton and for blends, there's not much of a solution available commercially. The technical solutions are still in the lab, there's nothing attractive yet at the commercial scale. The brands would love to be able to offer this, but it's technically and commercially difficult."

Infinitely traceable

One example, Infinity, a 100% recyclable polyester, is licensed by the company Dutch aWEARness. The product makes yarns from raw materials and the used clothing is ultimately collected, shredded and melted before being turned back to yarns once again. A key factor for Infinity is that it is traceable on account of the raw materials all possessing unique barcode identifiers, which are in turn linked to a track-and-trace web system.

"We can re-use Infinity fibres eight times before we have to add virgin material," says Iris van Wanrooij, a spokesperson for Dutch aWEARness. "At that point the fibres become very short, but re-using them eight times makes for huge cost and energy savings."

Dutch aWEARness is working with another Netherlands-based company, Ioniqa Technologies, of Eindhoven, which is developing chemical recycling that should dramatically extend the lifetime of the closed loop.

"They work with a magnetism, to add a fluid to the fibre blend, it separates the polyester from the non-polyester. It makes it possible to recycle without losing any quality." For now, the technology remains in the lab, but van Wanroij is confident this will soon change. "In the medium term, with investment, it will be possible to do it on a large scale," she told just-style.

Wider production loop

As for the wider production loop, taking into account water use and dyes, Morley says such a system is a long way off, but suggests striving for that may lead to missing some short-term goals. "I don't think anybody has a 100% closed loop on water and dyes. But they are rightly making the biggest emphasis on water-hungry processes, and it's about reducing the amount of water used through good management and new processes that avoid water use."

Yet the principles behind closed loops also require companies to work out how they continue to impact more widely upon the natural environment and its resources. In May, France-based luxury brands owner Kering placed its audited environmental profit and loss account on an open source platform.

The account measures Kering's environmental footprint and that of its supply chains and values it in monetary terms. According to a spokesperson, this bolsters moves towards a closed loop by guarding against the impact of matters beyond its control.

"This assessment deepens the understanding of our activities. It increases a company's ability to reduce its impact, and to respond to drivers of change in the supply chain, including fluctuations in raw material quality and availability."

Kering's results highlight where fabric manufacturers need to focus in pursuit of the closed loop: of the company's environmental impact, 93% falls within the supply chain, with more than 50% of the impact associated with raw material production. This breaks down into 35% from GHG emissions; 27% from land use; 25% from leather; and 17% linked to cotton.