Skip to content

Why clothes are difficult to recycle

Constantly new collections in the stores, cheap fashion for the price of a coffee, this promotes buy, wear, throw away. Although more and more fashion companies are advertising sustainable materials, there is not yet a real cycle in which old clothes become new textiles. The environmental and climate impact of the textile industry is enormous.

Recycling clothes sounds simple, but it is a complex problem. The textile industry is one of the world’s largest industries. The United Nations estimates its size at 2.4 trillion dollars a year (about two trillion euros), with more than 75 million employees worldwide. "The fashion industry is the world’s second-largest consumer of water and is responsible for eight to 10 percent of carbon emissions – more than all international rivers and maritime shipping combined" the United Nations said at the launch of a UN Sustainable Fashion Project in 2019.

Every German throws away almost 5 kilos of textiles a year

An estimated 50 billion tons of textiles are produced every year. Three-quarters of this is likely to end up in landfills. With fast fashion, i.e. many collections and low prices, production has doubled between 2000 and 2014, according to the management consultancy McKinsey, while wearing time has halved. Another study shows: statistically, every German throws away around 4.7 kilograms of textiles a year. Only 500 grams of this would be recycled.

The consortium wear2wear with six companies from the textile industry aims to produce textiles from 100 percent used textiles. These include the company Sympatex from Unterföhring in Upper Bavaria, which produces a waterproof, windproof and breathable membrane for functional textiles. By 2030, it wants to use only raw materials from a circular textile cycle, and everything should be 100 percent recyclable again, as spokeswoman Verena Bierling says.

However, a test conducted by the wear2wear companies with a rain jacket showed that the devil is in the details. Although it was possible to weave 230 meters of fabric with 500 kilograms of old polyester jackets, 70 percent new fibers had to be added for quality reasons, as wear2wear spokeswoman Annette Mark says. The new fibers come from PET bottles, i.e. plastic. But environmentalists find it problematic when material is removed from a cycle that functions in itself, as with plastic bottles.

High energy expenditure for cleaning and deodorizing

The Swiss Materials Testing and Research Institute (Empa) compared the environmental impact of the jacket with the proportion made from old jackets with a jacket made purely from PET bottle fibers. The old clothing jacket did better in eleven environmental risk categories, such as global warming, toxicity to the environment and water scarcity. But: "The energy required for cleaning, dewatering and the like remains enormous", says Mark. Work on the processes will continue, he adds. "You can’t get carried away: we’re still at the very beginning."

And polyester is still simple. Blended fabrics are much more complicated. But that’s what most of the world’s clothing is made of. Processes to easily break down fabrics back into components such as polyester, polyamide and cotton are in their infancy. In the case of the rain jackets that were recycled, only five percent were not made of polyester, for example the adhesive between the membranes and the lining, but even that clogged the nozzles of the spinning machines after the granulate melted during further processing. In addition, the cycle is not endless: "We can manage one recycling cycle, but after that it becomes difficult with the quality", says Mark. The polymer loses quality and the new yarn becomes uneven.

British company Worn Again Technologies is working on separating blended fabrics. Investors include fashion company H&M and Swiss technology company Sulzer. Sulzer is building a plant that will convert polyester and cotton garment fabrics into polyester pellets and cellulose pulp that can be spun back into fiber. The plant is expected to produce 1,000 tons of new fiber per year. But that would be a drop in the bucket compared with the quantities that H&M sells.

In 2020, H&M used 6 percent recycled materials.

At H&M, the proportion of recycled materials in 2020 was around six percent, according to a company spokesperson, still twice as much as the year before. The goal is to reach 30 percent by 2025. Among other things, the company has founded the online store Itsapark, which also sells second-hand clothing. The spokesman does not say how much this accounts for in total sales.

Greenpeace calls for fundamental rethink

Greenpeace considers such activities to be window dressing. It gives customers a good conscience so that they then continue to shop carefree, says Greenpeace consumer expert Viola Wohlgemuth. Textile consumption must change fundamentally. Companies must become textile service providers. Lending, sharing, exchanging, repairing – that must be the model of the future, and clothing made from such sustainable models must übe found everywhere in everyday life and be cheaper than buying something new", she says. H&M is also concerned that fashion should be used, resold, reused and recycled for as long as possible, the spokesperson says.

The European Union plans to publish a textile strategy this year. Manufacturers are to be held accountable for producing more durable textiles that cause less environmental damage and can be better recycled.

With material from dpa