From fiber to possibly new fiber
The figure below illustrates the conventional lifecycle of clothes, from product design, fiber production, fabric manufacturing, cutting and tailoring (including finishing), transport, storage and sales, to use and reuse by consumers, and finally to either textile recycling, or waste generation and subsequent landfill or incineration.
In Europe, reuse of clothing is a growing business, either as second hand garments or as textile materials for industrial purposes. Recycling of the actual textile fibers however, is still a rare case. Recycling of textile fibers does occur to an increasing extent, for example as mechanical recycling of cotton or chemical recycling of polyester (see Ecocircle by Teijin). However, large-scale recycling of polyester, cotton and other textile fibers is still to be realized.
In Sweden, unwanted clothes in private homes are either discarded as household trash or donated to second hand stores or charity organisations. Textiles donated to second hand stores are sorted and resold directly, or are transported to national collection sites for further transportation to larger sorting sites abroad. Textiles donated at local collection points are generally transported directly to national collection sites and then exported to large international sorting facilities.
The main international sorting companies are BOER Group, SOEX Group and KICI. These companies have large sorting facilities in various countries, e.g. in the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Germany, UK and USA. After arrival at these sites, the textiles are systematically sorted by trained personnel into several hundred of fractions, based on quality, condition, functionality, style, etc. Textiles of sufficient condition for direct reuse are resold to international second hand markets. Textiles of poorer conditon are sold to various industries as rags, for use as cleaning cloths, insulation, padding, etc (so called “industrial recycling”).
When clothes and other textiles end up in new recipient countries there is little or no control of their final destinies. In Sweden, combustion of discarded textiles is legally supported and practiced. This implies that textiles discarded by households, private companies or municipalities are collected and transported to a municipal heating plant for incineration; the textiles are thus converted to energy and used for heating or cooling. Yet, the textile is lost from the fiber cycle. In many other countries (e.g. the UK), systematic incineration of discarded textiles is not legally supported. Instead, discarded textiles are exported to other countries and dumped as landfill, for example in Syria.
As there is currently no integrated business model or logistics for fiber recycling of textiles on a large scale in Europe, the life cycle of clothes are today essentially linear and not circular as the figure above suggests. Within a few years, however, recycling of cotton and viscose fibers from discarded textiles may become a reality thanks to a groundbreaking method developed by Re:newcell at the Royal School of Technology in Stockholm. If the project goes as planned, Re:newcell’s chemical process of cellulosic fiber recycling will be put into practice at a new recycling site in the centre of Sweden (Vänersborg). The vision by involved parties is to collect discarded textiles from all of Scandinavia (Sweden, Denmark and Norway). The textiles (containing cotton or viscose) will then be sorted in various fractions and chemically processed at the site. The end product is a cellulosic mass that can be transformed into a viscose yarn and subsequently used for manufacturing of new textiles. For more information, see Re:newcell.