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February 8, 2019

Supply chain integration key to boost fibre-to-fibre recycling

By Beth Wright

A new – and what claims to be the first – report to examine the economic factors influencing fibre-to-fibre (‘fibre2fibre’) recycling, says improvements are needed in a number of areas including supply chain integration and work to encourage demand from brands, retailers and consumers before the industry can move to a more circular business model.

The research from the UK-based Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) uses data from established and emerging business and academic trials to appraise the financial viability of using post-consumer clothing and textiles as feedstock for chemical and mechanical fibre2fibre recycling operations.

The focus on end-of-life clothing is an attempt to unlock alternative sources to virgin fibres for manufacturing clothes and supports WRAP’s work to reduce the environmental impact of clothing under the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan 2020. 

“We know that only housing, transport and food have greater environmental impacts than clothing, and with rising global demand we urgently need to secure new sources of materials and find new markets for used clothing. Fibre2fibre recycling offers a potential solution – but one that has not been properly investigated,” explains Peter Maddox, WRAP director. 

“Our report is the first to explain the economics of fibre2fibre recycling and will help investors, business-developers and the recycling sector navigate this relatively young, uncharted field. New processes and entrants onto the market should be monitored to inform the business case for future investment, but we already see potential for post-consumer textiles to become part of the UK’s fashion scene.”

The research on ‘Fibre to fibre recycling: An economic & financial sustainability assessment,’ was undertaken ahead of the anticipated global shortfall in virgin textiles. This predicts limitations in future cotton supplies, the UK’s most used fibre, with projections suggesting a 5m tonne global cotton deficit by 2020.

The report identifies a series of potential barriers to fibre2fibre recycling in the UK and sets out possible measures to overcome these. The barriers include:

  • Improvements in post-consumer textiles collection and sorting processes;
  • Introduction of automation to increase accuracy and decrease costs in the sorting process. Although still in development, automation may also lower garment preparation costs (removal of zippers, etc.);
  • Development and communication of feedstock specifications through collaboration between textile merchants and fibre2fibre recycling process developers;
  • Supply chain integration and work to foster demand (pull) from brands, retailers and consumers; and
  • Support for, and by, fibre2fibre recycling process developers and those in the textile merchant supply chain, in securing finance for process scale-up and commercialisation.

In terms of fibres providing the greatest potential for fibre2fibre recycling, cotton and polyester (found in mono-fibre fabrics and polycotton blends) are the leading materials, WRAP says. These are most commonly used in clothing and household textiles, with as much as three-quarters of post-consumer recycling grades containing polycotton blends. Growing demand for cotton and the potential for recycled cellulosic material to replace cotton make this material likely to sustain viable income levels for recyclers. Limiting the use of problematic dyes and trims would also help increase the potential for greater recyclability of more clothes.

In addition, the report adds further improvements in consumer messaging, and collection infrastructure could positively influence the proportion of discarded clothing available for recycling. Consumer behaviour also affects the quality of garments received, with excessive washing and tumble drying at high temperature causing damage to clothing and effecting the quality of the fibres recovered in mechanical reprocessing. 

Meanwhile, further work is needed to refine economic and financial models as more data on costs and prices in the F2F recycling value chain and in F2F recycling processes is made available. The report references two models – one chemical recycling process, and one mechanical recycling system. With a greater depth of data, this modelling exercise could be expanded to reflect a wider range of techniques and systems and explore the potential for financial viability further.

The report has been welcomed by the Textile Recycling Association. Its director Alan Wheeler says: “The fragility of existing fibre recycling markets is presenting a significant barrier to improving the overall sustainability of the fashion industry, which as we know has a huge environmental impact.

“The current markets for mechanically recycled fibres are limited, and to be able to collect more clothing that is currently being disposed of we must find new markets for recycled fibres or risk flooding these markets and potentially having to dispose of low value recycling grade textiles. Clearly this cannot happen. This research will help us to obtain a greater understanding of the market sensitivities, particularly of the fledgling chemical recycling processes, and how used textile collectors and processors may have to adapt their practices going forward to maximise value and recyclability of used textiles.”

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