Recycled and Recyclable
Does recycled rhyme with recyclable?
The global textile industry used around 103 million tons of fibres in 2019. A share ranging from 30% to 40% of these fibres becomes waste before entering the shops and the consumer circuit. Moreover, when clothing, blankets, sheets, and furnishing fabrics become waste at the end of their life cycle, more than 80% will end up in landfills or burned. Only 15% -20% will be recycled.
According to the Ellen McArthur Foundation, this enormous waste of resources can be valued at over $100 billion a year. How can we reduce it? One solution is to increase the use of recycled materials and improve recyclability. However, the two factors are far from overlapping.
The use of recycled materials is relatively simpler to implement; in the February 2022 edition of Milano Unica, as many as 71% of the companies that participated in the sustainability project presented samples that use recycled materials.
Some ambiguity exists in the definition of "recycled material".
According to the ISO 14021 standard and Italian law, a material is considered recycled when it first becomes waste and is subsequently collected and recovered or diverted from landfilling or incineration. It is important to note that waste is different from a by-product. The latter is a material that, despite being a production scrap, can be reused with only minor transformations either within the company that generated it or by other external users. Therefore the material made from a by-product can not be defined as recycled. Indeed, there are many waste vs. by-products borderline cases. An example is fabric cutting scraps that a garment maker sells to a recycler to shred them into new fibres for spinning. Are these materials waste or by-products? Fibres shredded from such scraps can be defined as recycled? It is an ambiguity and a definitional and normative contradiction that generates confusion and uncertainty and does not help spread "circular" processes in the textile industry.
When we switch to the concept of recyclability, we need to address technical difficulties. While theoretically, all textile materials are recyclable, not all destinations are economically or environmentally sustainable.
Recycling mixed materials, such as polycotton and wool-acrylic blends, which are the vast majority, is not easy. Fabrics and garments must be selected and segregated by type of fibre, and each fibre recycled separately, which in many cases is technically impossible or not doable at low cost.
Furthermore, the traditional mechanical recycling process breaks the fibres making them shorter and shorter at each cycle. Therefore, a garment made with mechanically recycled fibres is challenging to recycle again in new clothes. It can only be downcycled into products with lower added value, such as non-woven fabrics and insulating panels.
The new chemical recycling technologies for both synthetic and cellulosic fibres and the very recent developments in the field of chemical separation of mixed fibres are expanding the possibilities and, in the next future, will partially overcome the recycling limitations that exist today.