What is chemical recycling?

The fashion industry faces a critical waste problem, as the majority of our garments are discarded and contribute to textile waste, which is in turn responsible for resource depletion, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. Both mechanical and chemical recycling offer potential solutions. Chemical recycling, in particular, offers the possibility for high-value recycling and gives us a better chance at solving fashion’s ugly waste problem.

Of the 100 billion garments1 that are produced each year, 73% end up incinerated or in landfills as textile waste, and only 1% are recycled.2 According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or incinerated every second.3 These are staggering numbers that have far-reaching environmental consequences and further strain the planet of its limited resources. And unless new solutions are scaled, the industry is expected to miss the 2030 emissions reduction targets by 50%.4

In response to this concerning reality, textile recycling, also called textile-to-textile recycling, offers us the opportunity to significantly reduce the environmental impact caused by textile waste and usher in a more sustainable and responsible way of conducting business. Simply put, textile recycling is the process of recovering textile waste (both pre- and post-consumer) and reprocessing the material into new garments. Textile recycling is crucial to reduce waste, circulate materials, and allow for nature to regenerate the tenets of a circular economy.


Currently, there are two main methods for recycling textiles – mechanical recycling and chemical recycling. This article will introduce mechanical recycling, but focuses on chemical recycling. 

Mechanical recycling is a well-established and widely used process for recycling textiles into new yarns. It employs physical processing techniques, including the shredding of textile into smaller pieces, to recycle pre- and post-consumer textiles into new recycled yarns, which can then be re-entered into the fashion supply chain.

Chemical recycling of textiles, as the name suggests, uses chemical processes to break down textile waste to a molecular level. The different outputs of chemical recycling offer multiple points of re-entry into the fashion supply chain and allow for a more versatile product range than mechanical recycling. Chemical recycling is also thought to increase the purity of the output products in comparison to mechanical recycling. 

However, there are many barriers that chemical recycling must overcome before it can become a widely used solution like mechanical recycling. One of the barriers of chemical recycling is that it has only been explored for certain fibre types – namely, polyester, cellulose, and polycotton blends. 

Polyester chemical recycling involves using different methods to break polyester textiles down to a molecular level and then re-enter that recycled output at various points of the fashion supply chain. However, most of the recycled polyester on the market is actually made from plastic bottle sources rather than textiles. As such, the fashion industry is currently trying to ease the reliance on the bottling industry and push for circularity by investing in innovations in textile-to-textile polyester recycling.  

Cellulosics chemical recycling is the recycling of fibres made from cellulose, the polymer found in plant cell walls. Cellulosic fibres include cotton, hemp, bamboo, viscose, and many other fibres that can be harvested from plants and made into clothing. When these clothes are at the end of their use, they cannot be recycled back into their original plant form but they can be recycled via chemical processes into a new fibre nonetheless. These new fibres are called “Man-Made Cellulosic Fibres” (MMCFs) because, while they are made from cellulose, their production requires a human engineering process in comparison to their cellulosic counterparts that are harvested from nature, such as cotton. 

Nevertheless, we need other chemical recycling options besides those for just pure polyester and cellulose garments. The reality of our textile waste is that the majority is post-consumer, and of the garments we wear and throw away, a large percentage are blended textiles with two or more fibre types.5 For this reason, there is a large industry need for technologies capable of recycling blended textile waste with post-consumer contamination

There currently exists an industry push to foster more innovation in the space of chemical recycling to meet the need for solutions for blended, post-consumer waste, with upcoming legislation further accelerating and supporting this push. 

As these emerging technologies continue to grow and scale, we will begin to eat away at this complex problem and realign the industry with the 1.5 degrees target of the Paris Agreement. It is critical to note that beyond recycling, there needs to be a holistic, interdisciplinary approach to sustainability; one that encompasses the various stages of the fashion supply chain, including the adoption of biomaterials, sustainable processing and dyeing techniques, and enhanced transparency and traceability. 

As big as this problem is, there are many exciting innovations that are pushing the boundaries of how we think about recycling our textile waste. Many of them are part of our Innovation Programme:


1.   Mckinsey & Company (2016). Style that’s sustainable: A new fast-fashion formula. Read more here.

2. https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/topics/fashion/overview 

3. Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2017). A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future. Read more here.

4. McKinsey and Co. & Global Fashion Agenda (2020). Fashion on Climate. Read more here.

5. You can read more about this on our Sorting for Circularity Europe report.

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