The production of shoes and clothing puts a great strain on the environment. The clothing industry requires ever greater amounts of energy, water and crude oil to produce textile fibres. Over 2,700 litres of water are needed to produce one T-shirt alone. Closed textile cycles are required in order to conserve precious resources and the environment.
Used textiles as a raw material
TEXAID makes an important contribution towards this process by collecting used textiles professionally, sorting them effectively and returning them to the cycle of usability. We need to conduct research into putting used textiles to more efficient use while conserving natural resources and the environment in the long term. TEXAID is involved in various research projects for that very purpose. Technology to identify material composition and fibre separation is being developed with the aim of achieving a high-quality basic product that stays in the textile cycle for longer.
Our aim is to further increase our high second-hand value and make sure that used clothes, shoes and home textiles are kept in a closed loop.
Over the last few decades, textile manufacturing and sales volumes have risen dramatically all over the world. Since the turn of the millennium, production has doubled to over 100 billion items of clothing per year. The current linear shape of the textile value chains, consisting of production, distribution, sales, consumption and disposal, requires considerable quantities of natural resources and is therefore extremely harmful to the environment.
Due to the increasing sales and volumes of textiles, more and more energy, water and oil are required in their production. More than 700 gallons of water are used to make just one 10-ounce T-shirt (cf. WWF, 2013). In addition, pesticides, fertilisers and chemicals are harmful to the environment. Finished textiles contain a variety of fibre blends, chemicals and dyes, making recycling technically difficult and expensive. This has a substantial impact on the production cost for textiles containing recycled fibres, which cannot compete with virgin material. (cf. Greenpeace, 2017). On the supply side, many researchers are predicting a shortage of textile raw materials by the year 2025 (cf. Forschungskuratorium textil, 2012).
In the face of these challenges, professional textile collection, high-quality sorting and the sustainable re-use and processing of discarded textiles are becoming a more important part of the textile industry, and specialised textile recycling companies will help to close the loop in the textile life cycle.
A Carbotech AG study commissioned by TEXAID Switzerland has shown that used textile recycling has a positive effect on the environment. Compared to manufacturing new textiles, the environmental impact of the used textile recycling process is minuscule.
For example, the production of a new garment made from conventional cotton generates about 95 percent more emissions than the re-use of a similar second-hand garment collected by TEXAID. A simple cost-benefit-analysis can help to determine the environmental soundness of second-hand clothing collection. Benefit is derived when collected textiles continue to be worn as second-hand clothing and lower quality textiles are re-used as cleaning cloths or insulating materials. Without separate collection and high-quality sorting and re-use, used textiles are simply thrown away and thus subject to thermal recycling.
From an ecological standpoint, much benefit can be gained from collection and re-use of textiles, since new production of similar textiles has a significant negative impact on the environment. The ecological added value of collection and sorting depends on which product is being replaced and what it takes to make a new product of the same kind. However, the environmental impact of collection and sorting is extremely low compared to new production. Based on previous studies, we can even expect environmental benefit from lower quality goods that can only be used as cleaning cloths or insulating materials. While the greatest benefit is gained from collected goods of the highest quality, this high quality is often associated with consumers discarding new items much earlier than necessary. From an ecological standpoint the ideal scenario would be for consumers to refrain from purchasing new clothing and instead continue to use garments that are still in good condition.
TEXAID launched the Texcycle research project in partnership with Coop and Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts. The goal of the project is to create a new upcycling raw material that can be used in a number of different fields. With the Texcycle project, TEXAID hopes to help “close the loop” in textile recycling.
Every year, TEXAID collects around 37,000 tonnes of used clothes in Switzerland. The company then ensures these garments are recycled in an environmentally beneficial manner. Approximately 65 % of the collected textiles end up in the second-hand clothes market. The rest are clothes which are no longer fit to be worn. These garments are downcycled into rags, insulation or shoddy wool. Texcycle seeks to highlight the qualities of these materials so they can be put to better use, such as for the fabrication of high-quality products. By doing so, “used textile” raw materials will be more sustainable than ever.
Taking the “close the loop” approach
The Texcycle project, a joint endeavour by TEXAID, Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts and Coop, will strive to develop an innovative raw material to use in high-quality recycling. The first step will involve analysing the processes that are currently used to prepare used garments for recycling, and how these processes can be optimised for other applications. The project is centred around the “close the loop” approach, tackling the question of how textile life cycles can be closed in a sustainable and integral manner. The raw material derived from those garments which are no longer fit to be worn will be recycled for other uses.
Teaming up with science and commerce
The trio of partners began its 18 months of intensive project implementation work in January 2018 when TEXAID embarked on its partnership with Coop and Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts. Coop’s objective is to evaluate the possibilities of obtaining high-grade and sustainable recycling raw materials from used textiles, and to test the use of such materials in new products. At Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts, the project will be carried out in close collaboration with the Department of Design & Art and the Department of Technology & Architecture. A design-driven research strategy will allow for the highly complex sustainability issues of textile life cycles to be addressed from a perspective that is based entirely on design. What kind of textiles remain after the second-hand clothes sorting processes of today, and how can these materials be processed in an innovative way? What might a new line of products made with materials derived from used garments look like? To support theoretical questions such as these, Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts will create various prototypes for newly defined application areas to test their concepts and materials in practice.
The project is funded by the Swiss Innovation Agency (Innosuisse).
The Re:Mix project belongs to the fourth research area of Mistra Future Fashion – recycling. The objective of this project is to separate nylon and elastane fibres from mixed materials so that they can be recycled.
Most garments are made of a mixture of different materials. The different fibre types must be separated from one another if they are to be recycled to a high-quality standard. Re:Mix focuses on technical methods for separating nylon and elastane from other fibres. There are two different ways of doing this: a mechanical melting method and an enzymatic method. Both methods are currently being optimised and analysed, and are undergoing tests to determine whether they would also be suitable for applying to large quantities.
TEXAID is participating in the working group for the Fibersort project. As such, TEXAID takes part in discussions relating to the project and, on request, provides data from its work for analysis.
Fibersort is technology that automatically sorts large quantities of used textiles based on their fibre composition. Efficient sorting of items for recycling based on their composition provides the basis for high-quality recycling and thus for a closed textile cycle.
TEXAID supports the “Dissolving on Demand” project as part of its membership of the Future of Textiles Association.
Many industrially produced textile goods consist of dissimilar materials that are attached firmly together. This is the case with many textile laminates. At present, however, only a few of these laminates can be recycled. This is because the composites either cannot be separated using technology or because separation is not cost effective, with the result that the laminates cannot be returned to the recycling process as unmixed materials. New technology has now at least enabled a greater quantity of mixed waste to be made accessible to the recycling economy.
Innovative microcapsule system
The aim of the “Dissolving on Demand” project is to develop a thread that can be dissolved when required. The separation of the composites is based on an innovative microcapsule system into which the thread is integrated. At the end of the life cycle, the polar capsules are activated by targeted microwave irradiation, which causes them to release a solvent that weakens the composite. While the garment is still in use, the functional properties of the textile, such as chemical and thermal resistance, should remain unaffected by the microcapsules.
Furthermore, the research project evaluates specific concepts for upscaling and integrating the technology into the real recycling loop.