Re-using and reprocessing clothing, fibres and scraps is an effective way to create sustainability in the apparel industry - although textile recycling is currently facing barriers associated with cost, time, and technology. But as sustainability gains in importance, many services are being offered by both apparel manufacturers and other clothing and sector organisations to help improve recycling outputs.

Facilitating textile sorting is a huge step towards improving the efficiency of textile recycling, according to Sander Jongerius, who works in product development at KICI Foundation, a Dutch non-commercial organisation that collects post-consumer textiles.

KICI is an official consortium partner of the EU-funded Textiles for Textiles (T4T) project: a large-scale, automatic sorting installation being developed to help improve - and speed up - the recyclability of post-consumer textiles.

The installation can sort textile materials based on fibre composition, colour, chemical composition and other parameters, scanning around one item per second. Detecting specific properties of a garment, and commonly used mixes (for instance 70% cotton, 30% polyester), the machine puts items into exclusive piles, based on material composition, so garments can be quickly and efficiently processed into new items of the same material.

"The machine offers sorted materials for high-quality products that can compete with virgin materials," explains Jongerius. This, he says, could radically reduce pressure on natural resources, "especially for the sorting companies of second hand clothes, this [technology] is really crucial - a lot of clothing is recycled only into low value products, with the pile [of unsuitable materials] getting larger."

While many sorting companies collect only good quality clothing, the T4T machine would encourage the disposal of textile waste, too, to be turned back into raw materials.

The full test phase for the machine will take about two months - up until spring 2012 - after which it will likely be adapted for different plants around the world. "I think sorting companies will purchase [T4T] first, but I also see a big opportunity with textile manufacturers that have a lot of overstock within their companies," he says.

"They can use the [T4T] to sort clothing correctly so they have a value with their overstock...using it as a raw material to produce clothing again."

More sustainability strategies
While T4T works on improving recycling technology, other areas of the industry are developing different sustainability strategies.

In the US, for example, a group of leading apparel and footwear brands, retailers, manufacturers, NGOs (non-governmental organisations), academics and the US Environmental Protection Agency launched a Sustainable Apparel Coalition in March 2011, aiming to put a spotlight on promising technological innovations, and develop effective uses for textile waste.

Another organisation dedicated to promoting the reprocessing of textile waste into value-added products is The Netherlands' Texperium Foundation, which brings disposers and potential users of recycled textile materials together to develop and educate on recycling or reprocessing technologies.

Anton Luiken, one of Texperium's founders, said that while contributing to environmentalism is an important mandate of the organisation, another key goal is to help companies actually profit from recycling textile waste or post-consumer apparel.

"We want to help participants develop and think about new ways of textile recycling by trying to get the products and fibres back into high-end value products," he notes.

And while technological innovations (such as T4T) are certainly positioned to contribute greatly to recyclability, Luiken says manufacturers need to begin looking at more pro-active approaches to recycling

"The biggest challenge will be to make materials much more suitable for recycling. Things can really be improved by simplification...in fashion, there are often exotic mixes of materials, but [manufacturers could] try using only mainstream materials and fibres instead."

Luiken adds it is much harder to develop equipment to recycle textiles, rather than make them more eco-friendly to begin with.

Recycling in action
One company taking this strategy to heart is US-based Unifi Manufacturing Inc, producer of multi-filament polyester and nylon textured yarns and related raw materials.

"A critical piece of the recycling challenge is to work with brands to make sure products are being designed to recycle," says Jim Ciccone, brand sales manager. "This means using components that are compatible with the recycling process - maybe choosing a polyester component over another material, which would allow more of the supply chain waste - and ultimately, more of the final garments - to be recycled with little-to no deconstruction."

Unifi, itself, back in 2006, began turning fibre waste into Repreve, a hybrid fibre made from a blend of post-industrial and post-consumer waste. In the spring of 2011, Unifi also opened a Repreve Recycling Center, which uses equipment designed specifically for the purpose of recycling fabrics back into fine fibres.

And while initiatives to make textile recycling more sustainable are cropping up all over Europe and North America, many manufacturers around the world have already begun integrating recycling into their production process, according to Mike Todaro, managing director at the American Apparel Producers' Network (AAPN).

One apparel factory in El Salvador, for example, is making active wear produced with recycled synthetic yarn. "[This factory] is working on recycling of the recycled fabric; getting it back into a state where it can be redrawn as yarn, texturised, knit and sewn back into more apparel," he explains.

Meanwhile, American-owned Rocedes Apparel in Nicaragua sends all cutting room scraps to a company that turns it back into fibres; while over in Mexico, 100% of Kaltex Apparel's Querétaro factory's cloth waste is used to make yarn.

Click on the links below to view other articles included in this management briefing:

just-style management briefing: Closing the loop on recycled textiles

just-style management briefing: Textile and clothing recycling worldwide

just-style management briefing: Textile waste recycling regulations