The threat of climate change has forced the world to start thinking more about ways to reduce carbon emissions. Governments and non-state actors incentivize companies and individuals to reduce carbon waste. The fashion industry is one of the major industries where there have been serious attempts to reduce carbon emissions. Brands appeal to sustainability enthusiasts by showing how they recycle their products and materials. However, the billion-dollar question is, can clothes ever be fully recycled?
The answer is not as easy as it may seem. There have been considerable improvements in clothes recycling, and brands are leveraging that to improve their images. While these efforts are growing, the reality is that it currently amounts to little. The fashion industry accounts for 8-10% of global carbon emissions, necessitating more solutions to the problem. One of the unique solutions fashion brands are exploring is recycling materials.
Efforts to recycle clothes may not yield results now, but it is not an impossible mission. The many challenges are being tackled one by one. For instance, there is the problem of most clothes being from fast fashion brands. These brands use cheap materials like polyester to make their products affordable. The downside is that polyester is hard to recycle, especially since it is usually mixed with other materials like cotton during production.
Another problem is that high-end fashion brands’ sustainability plans mostly revolve around the three-pronged system of reselling, reusing, and recycling. None of this involves old clothes being turned into new ones, and currently, only about 1% of recycled clothes are turned into new outfits. A whopping 65% of the estimated 100 billion items of clothing produced annually end up in landfills within a year.
While the fashion industry strives to find a way to improve sustainability, some groups are leading the change. One of the most notable is Renewcell, which built the world’s first commercial-scale recycling mill. The Swedish pulp producer spent ten years developing their textile to textile chemical recycling pulp mill, and the result is a mill that can increase the quality and scale of recycling.
Renewcell’s team uses textile waste, mainly from old t-shirts and jeans, to make biodegradable cellulose they call Circulose. They separate tangled cotton fibers from each other through mechanical and chemical processing. The result is pure cellulose, which is then dried and sold to manufacturers to make viscose fabric. The team prides itself on using 100% renewable energy for its operations.
The mill has already established relationships with relevant brands in the industry to expand its operations. They have plans to supply brands like H&M and Zara. They also deal with cellulose manufacturers like Tangshan Sanyou Chemical Industries, Birla, and Kelheim Fibres. While the company continues to plan for expansion, there is still a long way for the industry to go before clothes can be fully recycled.
Fully recycling clothes may seem an impossible task in the present. However, more and more revolutionaries are coming up daily to change the narratives. They include Worn Again Technologies, a textile recycling company based in Nottingham, UK; SuperCircle, a US tech company that manages recycling logistics; and Canopy, a US non-profit which aims to protect forests from being cut down to make packaging and textiles.