Circular systems could monetize textile waste while helping to save the planet.
by Debra Cobb
The textile sustainability landscape is changing. While textile manufacturers, brands and retailers tout their use of recycled or sustainable fibers, mountains of textile waste continue to pile up in the world’s landfills. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that in 2017 some 16.9 million tons of textile waste landed in the U.S. municipal solid waste (MSW) stream, with about 11.2 million tons going to landfills.
According to Textile Recovery in the U.S.: A Roadmap to Circularity, Resource Recycling Systems’ (RRS) June 2020 whitepaper, textile waste in the U.S. grew at a rate of 78 percent (by weight) between 2000 and 2017 and is outpacing the growth of other types of waste, including plastics. The RRS report defines textile products as apparel and non-apparel products including home and hospitality textiles, commercial textiles, and indoor and outdoor upholstery fabrics. This includes textile waste generated by residential, commercial and institutional sectors, but does not include postindustrial waste, which is estimated to be from 3 to 6 percent at each stage of production.
Enter the concept of a circular economy. A circular textiles system is one “in which clothes, fabrics and fibers are kept at their highest value during use, and re-enter the economy after use, never ending up as waste,” according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a global organization that champions circular economies.
Although a growing percentage of high-end apparel is sold on the secondhand market, charity shops and donation bins are bursting at the seams with less-desirable textiles. According to Best Practices for Textile Collection in Municipal Recycling Programs, a report by Eureka Recycling, a nonprofit zero waste organization and social enterprise recycler based in Minneapolis, Minn., only about 20 percent is purchased by consumers. The remainder is sent to brokers, eventually becoming shoddy for rags, stuffing or insulation; or it is shipped overseas to be sold in secondhand markets in developing nations, eventually ending up in landfills or incinerated.
As a result, the concept of repairing, renewing and upcycling post- and pre-consumer textiles to maintain value is gaining traction. In addition, some tech companies are creating textile-to-textile recycling technologies to recover and monetize that embedded value. But success depends on collection, sorting and collaboration with textile manufacturers and end users.
Recycling industrial textile waste
Although fingers are generally pointed at apparel brands and retailers, the industrial and specialty fabrics sectors are responsible for a share of textile waste. While industrial and specialty fabricators recycle many types of manufacturing waste, textile takeback or recycling programs are few and far between.
Headquartered in Tukwila, Wash., Rainier Industries Ltd., a custom fabricator of tents, awnings, displays and other textile products, separates and recycles 10 classifications of waste. “We make a lot of garbage,” admits CEO Scott Campbell. The company separated and recycled 669 tons of waste last year, including cardboard, wood, aluminum, compost and clear plastic. “Most of it we get paid for,” he says.
But there is little demand for Rainier’s industrial textile waste. A “micro-percentage” was donated for making bags, but chemicals in their canvas scrap consigned most of it to the landfill. Rainier does participate in Recycle My Sunbrella® program. This takeback program recycles Sunbrella brand fabrics from customers and consumers as an alternative to disposal for fabric scraps, awning covers, boat covers and upholstery fabric. Sunbrella recycles and delivers the waste to partners that convert the materials into industrial products such as felt, automotive insulation or filtration material.
“The Recycle My Sunbrella program is a key tenet of our sustainability initiatives,” says John Gant, director of sustainability at Glen Raven® Custom Fabrics, maker of Sunbrella. “This program allows us to empower our customers and partners to be proactive about disposing of their Sunbrella products.”
Separately, the company’s Renaissance yarn program combines up to 93 percent postindustrial recycled fiber with virgin Sunbrella fiber, creating fabrics with a unique look and Sunbrella performance standards.
At Aurora Specialty Textiles Group Inc., Yorkville, Ill., a manufacturer of printable fabrics, technical textiles and pressure-sensitive tapes, a recycling program called FabRecycle™ was less successful. “We haven’t done the FabRecycle program for many years,” says Aurora president Marcia Ayala. “Everyone liked the idea, but they didn’t want to send the used fabric to be recycled and didn’t want to pay more for the initial product that was made from recycled PET [polyethylene terephthalate] bottles. I still think it is very important that we continue to innovate and look for other ways to be a good steward to the environment through recycling.”
Marisa Adler, senior consultant and lead author of the RRS report, points out that there is a real cost to collecting, transporting, aggregating and sorting materials. “It’s not unrealistic for industrial textile fabricators to expect to be compensated if they collect or otherwise handle used textiles,” she says. “While there is work that can be done now to prepare for a future of circular industrial textiles … it may be that the apparel industry lays the path and proves out the economics before the harder-to-tackle industrial textiles industry follows suit.”
Recycling issues and innovations
Polyester fiber mechanically generated from recycled plastic bottles (rPET) is the textile industry’s favorite “sustainable” fiber. The global rPET market is expected to be worth $12.5 billion by 2026, with close to 50 percent going into fiber. While the demand for rPET is surging as global brands commit to phasing out virgin plastic fibers over the next 10 years, the supply of postconsumer PET bottles is governed by recycling behavior as opposed to demand. But polyester fibers created via mechanical recycling and used for textiles usually lack the purity needed to be mechanically recycled back into rPET for packaging.
The RRS report says that rPET prices are on the rise and predicts that prices “will likely continue to go up as competition increases. To further intensify the price disparity, virgin PET prices are forecasted to decrease as oversupply floods the market from overproduction, and the gap in pricing between rPET and virgin PET will grow.”
As for natural and cellulosic textiles, mechanical recycling results in shorter, weaker fibers that must be blended with virgin fibers. However, fiber blends of natural and petroleum-based feedstocks cannot be separated by mechanical recycling. Industry innovators are increasingly looking toward recycling technologies that break down discarded textiles into their molecular components and can then be used to generate fibers said to be comparable to virgin.
Pete Majeranowski, president, CEO and cofounder of Tyton BioSciences LLC, a tech company based in Danville, Va., that is developing an alternative approach to textile recycling, describes rPET as “a Band-Aid.”
“If we recycled every PET bottle into fiber, we’d still have a 60-to-80-million-ton gap in the world’s demand for PET,” he says.
Originally focused on plant science, Tyton BioSciences’ founders realized that there was a stronger market pull to recycle textiles with their technology. They developed and patented a water-based recycling method using subcritical water technology—essentially using hot water under pressure as a solvent—to break down polyester, cotton or blended textile waste. The results are high-grade cellulose pulp, used to make viscose or lyocell, and polyester monomers (terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol).
“What makes us unique is that we can use blended textiles, the most available and cheapest feedstock,” says Majeranowski. “We have nearly 90 percent recovery, which helps with the economics. Once we get to scale, our projections show our costs to be close to that of virgin product.”
At Södra Cell Bioproducts in Sweden, Södra OnceMore™ technology separates the fibers in blended textiles via a chemical process. The resulting cellulosic fibers are combined with cellulose from Södra’s wood processing operation to create high-quality dissolving pulp for viscose and lyocell.
“The great advantage with our solution is that it is integrated with the pulp mill, so all effluents are treated, the polyester residues are incinerated, and heat and electricity is produced,” says Johannes Bogren, vice president of Södra Cell Bioproducts. “It’s simple; 95 percent of the machinery is already there.”
For the moment, Södra is using post-consumer white textiles from laundries, hospitals and hospitality to make OnceMore. “The biggest challenge today is a waste supply at a viable cost,” Bogren says. “Since no supply chain, no collection or solutions are there, the cost is too high today. Once that is solved, our technology will be very competitive, so we need legislation and more partners to also look on that side of the business.”
Advanced circular technologies
With its long history in textile chemistry, it is no surprise to see Eastman Chemical Co. making strides in recycling. “Molecular recycling is here and now,” says Steve Crawford, the company’s senior VP/chief technology/sustainability officer.
In 2019 the company introduced two advanced circular recycling technologies: polyester renewal technology (PRT), which breaks down hard-to-recycle polyester waste into basic polymer building blocks, and carbon renewal technology (CRT), which recycles complex and mixed plastic waste.
Eastman’s PRT process creates virgin-like polyesters that can be used to make “durable products with less greenhouse gas,” such as CamelBak® and Nalgene® water bottles, according to Crawford. The PRT efforts are commercial today with additional PRT technology scaling up by the end of 2022.
Eastman has already recycled millions of pounds of textile waste since late last year. Circular Polymers, an Eastman partner, transforms post-consumer carpet waste into usable feedstock and sends it to Kingsport, Tenn., where Eastman uses it to make new materials for textiles and other products via CRT.
One of these advanced materials is Naia™, a cellulose acetate fiber primarily used in apparel. At present, fossil fuels are used to create syngas, needed to make one of the main ingredients in Naia, but gases derived from Eastman’s CRT can be substituted for these fossil fuels, resulting in an acetate fiber that is produced from 60 percent certified wood fibers and 40 percent recycled waste plastics. The new product, called Naia Renew, is set to be launched this fall.
Eastman’s integration of chemical recycling, polymerization and fiber spinning combines links of the textile value chain under one roof. But one of textile recycling’s biggest challenges is aggregating the materials for feedstock. “We can’t go to thousands of collection points,” says Crawford. “We need partnerships to get to scale across the industry. It’s hard for one company to make that happen.”
Circular recycling of textiles holds enormous potential for job creation and economic output, but sourcing textile waste to use for feedstock is one of the industry’s biggest challenges. True textile-to-textile recycling requires support from collectors and sorters, legislatures and regulators, and suppliers and partners up and down the value chain.
“Textile products … carry embedded value for consumers, and there is increasing evidence of financial benefit for brands and retailers to provide opportunities for recovery and reuse,” the RRS report says. Industrial and specialty textile manufacturers can choose to participate in reclaiming that value.
Debra Cobb is a freelance writer with extensive experience in the textiles industry. She is based in Greensboro, N.C.
SIDEBAR: The European way in textile recycling
Launched for commercialization in March 2020, Fibersort is an automated sorting technology that could enable the industry to redirect textiles that have no destination other than downcycling, landfill or incineration, into valuable feedstock for textile-to-textile recycling. Using near-infrared (NIR) technology, Fibersort is able to categorize textiles in 45 different fractions, based on color and fiber composition, including cotton, polyester, wool, acrylic, nylon, viscose and blends.
The collection and sorting of textile waste is step one in reclaiming the value being lost in the waste stream. While few municipalities in the U.S. offer textile collection and recycling, European Union policy will oblige its member states to collect textiles separately by 2025 and ensure that the collection will not be incinerated or sent to landfill.
Natalia Papú Carrone, textiles research analyst for lead Fibersort project partner Circle Economy, explains that the project began with Wieland Textiles, a textile sorter in the Netherlands, and Valvan Baling Systems in Belgium, which led the design, engineering, software development and construction of the machine. “The first challenge was to build in performance and accuracy,” she says.
Circle Economy, together with collector Salvation Army ReShare, mechanical recycler Procotex and chemical polymer recycler Worn Again Technologies, joined the challenge to assess the business case of the technology and find suitable destinations for the sorted textiles.
Sorting textiles by hand is extremely repetitive, including assessment by touch and reading labels. Using an automated feed system, Fibersort’s latest iteration works at twice the speed of earlier versions and has shown accuracy levels of 98 percent in identifying mainstream materials, such as cotton.
“The return on investment depends on how the machine is used and the end markets. Sorting and finding higher value destinations for the materials is key, especially for certain challenging blends,” says Papú Carrone.