The analysis indicates that 74%, a total of 494,000 tonnes, of low-value, post-consumer textiles is readily available for fibre-to-fibre recycling in six European countries. This represents the potential to generate an additional €74 million per year in value by reintroducing sorted and recycled textiles back into the value chain.
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.
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 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:
For all collectors, sorters, and recyclers
- Use the Sorters Handbook and the Sorting for Circularity Europe Report as guidance to conduct further trials and continue to build an understanding of fibre composition, sorting and recycling processes.
- Provide open-access to trials and data that can support and direct investment into necessary infrastructure.
- Update and utilise the Recyclers Database to build knowledge about mechanical and chemical recycling destinations.
- Funnel further investments into new sorting technologies needed to scale the amount of textiles deemed suitable as feedstock for mechanical and chemical recycling.
- Join digital platforms such as Reverse Resources and Refashion Recycle to unlock and connect supply with demand.
For brands and manufacturers
- Further commit to adopting circular design practices and incorporating recycled fibres into product portfolios as mandated by the upcoming Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation in the European Union.
For policy makers
- Consider the Sorting for Circularity Europe Report and other relevant studies when developing toolkits, frameworks and legislation such as: the harmonised Extended Producer Responsibility framework, the Digital Product Passports pathway in textiles, and the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation.
- Take into account that purchase and disposal choices have an influence on the end of use of textiles. Consider extending the life of products through repairing, reselling and swapping.
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