The fashion industry, grappling with a substantial waste problem, is facing pressure, notably from European governments, to establish ambitious recycling targets. The complexity of textile recycling, coupled with the nascent stage of the essential technologies, presents considerable challenges. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) stress the root issue: overproduction of garments. They fear that technological advancements might serve as a cover for fashion brands to sustain or escalate the production of new clothing items. Despite these apprehensions, an immediate demand for large-scale recycling practices prevails in the industry.
Innovative Approaches to Textile Recycling
Several innovative solutions have emerged within the textile recycling landscape in response to these challenges. These solutions target various facets of the recycling process, from unblending clothes to in-house recycling, and creating new fibers from waste materials.
Circ, a US-based company, has devised a chemical solution to separate clothes, especially polycotton blends, into their original parts. By using a hydrothermal process, Circ liquifies the polyester, separates it from the cotton, and transforms both materials into new fibers. This innovation addresses the challenge of recycling blended materials, traditionally hard to recycle.
SuperCircle concentrates on the crucial task of collecting and sorting old clothes. By amalgamating delivery firms, warehouses, and tracking systems, SuperCircle streamlines and economizes the collection and sorting process. The company also aims to shift public attitudes by introducing in-store drop-off bins, free shipping labels, and other incentives to encourage end-of-life recycling.
Technological Interventions in the Recycling Chain
Saentis Textiles provides an in-house recycling solution with a patented machine that recycles cotton with minimal damage to the fibers. Brands like IKEA, Patagonia, and Tommy Hilfiger already use Saentis Textiles' recycled cotton. The company now sells its machine to textile companies to facilitate on-site recycling of cut-offs and scraps.
Unspun offers a unique approach with its 3D weaving machine, which creates custom-sized garments from yarns in under ten minutes. Unspun's micro-factories aim to eliminate the need for brands to maintain large inventory stockpiles, reducing waste and transportation.
Cetia simplifies the preparation of old clothes for recycling with a range of machines that remove soles from shoes and use AI to identify and remove hard points such as buttons and zippers without damaging the items.
Rubi Labs has developed a method to capture waste carbon dioxide from factories and convert it into cellulose, a raw material for yarn. Rubi Labs has initiated a pilot project with retail giant Walmart to test its innovation.
Challenges and Opportunities
The rise of fast-fashion companies like Shein, accused of exploiting unpaid labor and encouraging overconsumption, further complicates the industry's push towards sustainability. Therefore, the need for sustainable practices within the industry becomes more urgent.
The challenges and opportunities within the fashion industry's recycling landscape are vast and complex. Governments, NGOs, and industry players continue to navigate the path towards sustainable practices, where innovative solutions play a crucial role.