“As fibre-to-fibre textile recycling commitments and policies increase, as well as the amount of textile waste collected, the infrastructure required to drive the move towards circular systems requires significant investment to scale. To make informed investment decisions, as well as assess the business case for monetisation through recycling, a deeper understanding of the characteristics of today’s European post-consumer textiles landscape is needed. This project lays the knowledge foundation that will enable key players to set into motion.” – Katrin Ley, Managing Director of Fashion for Good
The Sorting for Circularity Europe Project was initiated to address this knowledge gap, exploring post-consumer textiles in depth, providing meaningful information on which to base investment decisions, policy developments and next steps towards circularity. Furthermore, the project aims to increase harmonisation between the sorting and recycling industry, stimulating a recycling market for unwanted textiles that can generate new revenue streams for sorters and unlock demand for recyclers and brands. The full report of the project can be read here.
Conducting the analyses across Europe, in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and the United Kingdom, the project provides the most comprehensive and representative snapshot of textile waste composition in Europe to date. The results point to promising opportunities for recapturing value while diverting textiles from downcycling and incineration. The results also inform brands of the best circular design practises to adopt, as well as textile collection agencies and organisations to build the necessary infrastructure and better educate and engage consumers on proper sorting and disposal practices.
LEAPING FORWARD THROUGH TECHNOLOGY
Using innovative Near Infrared (NIR) technology to determine garment composition, traditionally a task performed manually, the project analysed a total of 21 tonnes of post-consumer garments. On-the-ground examinations were performed over two time periods, autumn/winter 2021 and spring/summer 2022, to account for seasonal changes in the types of garments entering sorting facilities.
Cotton was found to be the dominant fibre (42%), followed by a large presence of material blends (32%), almost half of which consisted of polycottons (12%). Based on three characteristics, material composition, presence of disruptors, such as zippers and buttons, and colour, 21% of the materials analysed are deemed suitable as feedstock for mechanical recycling, while 53% are suitable for chemical recycling. This presents a significant opportunity for circularity as currently only 2% of post consumer textiles are diverted to fibre-to-fibre recycling.
BUILDING A ROBUST SORTING AND RECYCLING INFRASTRUCTURE
In addition to the report, two further industry resources, developed by Circle Economy, have been made available; Recycler’s Database, a database mapping textile recycler’s capabilities, illuminating crucial gaps between the sorting and recycling industry, and an open source Sorters Handbook to guide the sorting industry – encouraging and supporting further analyses.
Building off the project, two open digital platforms, Reverse Resources and Refashion Recycle, to match textile waste from sorters with recyclers, have been identified as critical tools to further enable the connections needed to drive greater circularity in the years to come. Following an assessment of suitable digital platforms within and outside of the textile industry, Reverse Resources have 39 active recyclers and 32 active waste handlers/sorters on their platform, while Refashion Recycle have 103 recyclers and 66 sorters onboarded onto their platform. This represents a large portion of the European circularity industry.
PATH TOWARDS A CIRCULAR INDUSTRY
The amount of textile waste collected is likely to increase, due to growing consumption and disposal, and incoming legislation, such as the Waste Framework Directive. Overall, a strong business case for sorting low value textiles is required in order to maintain and increase sorting capacity in Europe. To support this retention and development of sorting capacity, increased investments and policy changes play a key role.
Based on findings and knowledge gathered from the project, Fashion for Good and Circle Economy recommend the following actions in the report:
CONSORTIUMS POWER TRANSFORMATION
Launched in early 2021 and initiated by Fashion for Good together with Circle Economy, the Sorting for Circularity Europe project brought together key brands and industry leaders across Europe.
The project brings together the largest industrial textile sorters in the European region; including the Boer Group, I:CO – part of SOEX Group, JMP Wilcox – part of Textile Recycling International, Modare-Cáritas, Wtórpol and TEXAID, placing key industry players firmly at the heart of the project.
Sorting for Circularity Europe is made possible thanks to catalytic funding from Laudes Foundation and is facilitated by Fashion for Good brand partners, adidas, BESTSELLER, Inditex and Zalando, with H&M Group as key project partners. Fashion for Good partners Arvind Limited, Birla Cellulose, Levi Strauss & Co., Otto Group and PVH Corp. participated as part of the wider working group.
Circle Economy, with support from TERRA, led the creation and implementation of the methodology. Refashion facilitated the introduction to TERRA and created the Refashion textile materials library, for the implementation of the methodology. Matoha provided the NIR technology used to assess textile waste composition.
SORTING FOR CIRCULARITY
Sorting for Circularity aims to (re)capture textile waste, expedite the implementation of game changing technologies and drive circularity within the fashion value chain. The framework is based on insights from the Fashion for Good and Aii collaborative report “Unlocking the Trillion Dollar Fashion Decarbonisation Opportunity”, which charts a trajectory for the industry to meet its net-zero ambition by 2050, highlighting the potential and significant impact on carbon emissions in the industry through material efficiency, extended and re- use of waste. Created with scalability in mind, the project was first initiated in Europe, and has now expanded to include Sorting for Circularity India.
*At the time of the initial public release of the Sorting for Circularity Europe report (September 2022), the report included a chapter on policy recommendations, which has since been removed. The recent release of Policy Hub’s position paper (August 2022) best reflects the perspective of industry players to date and is therefore a guiding document for policy recommendations.
*Low-value textiles refers to both low-value and non-rewearable textile waste which are items that cannot be reused in their original form, enters end of use destinations such as downcycling (wipers, automotive industry) or incinerated, or have reached market saturation in the global second-hand textile trade.