How are textiles recycled?

Consider this: In 2013, Americans alone discarded 15.1 million tons of clothing and other textiles, and 85 % of that wound up in landfills.

According to the Bureau of International Recycling Textiles Division, worldwide, more than 60 % of clothes can be reused, and another 35 % are recycled into wiping rags or are converted into basic fibres and made into new products. This leaves less than 5 % that must be discarded.

While tonnes of textile, produced using virgin natural resources at various stages of its lifecycle ends up in landfills, industry and consumers “work” everyday to produce more textile, tapping again into limited resources like water, coal and oil.

Why should we recycle? <?p>

EXCESS WATER CONSUMPTION AND POLLUTION: Cotton production is heavily pesticide and water dependent. Pesticides pollute groundwater and get into water-ways and harm marine life, farm animals, farmers and ultimately, everyone.

WASTEFUL PRODUCTION: Some synthetic fibres made from petrochemicals do not decompose and those that do, emit greenhouse gases, causing global warming. These manmade fibres are so strong that most of them can be recycled to their 100% potential.

ENVIRONMENTALLY HARMFUL PRODUCTION: Through the textile production process, many chemicals are used to treat the fibres. For example, dyes, chemicals and fixing agents used cause pollution to soil, water and air.

WASTEFUL USE OF REAL ESTATE: 4 % of global landfills are filled with textile waste. This is approximately 3/4 the size of Australia!

How do we recycle?

Textile recycling, like textile production covers the gamut of pre-consumer and post-consumer waste from cotton, wool, burlap, jute, polyester, polyurethane foam, nylon and synthetic fibre, leather, rags, wipers, used clothes etc.

Pre-consumer textile waste is made up of industrial by-products created during fibre, textile or clothing production. It is recycled into new raw materials for the automotive, furniture, mattress, coarse yarn, home furnishings, paper and other industries.

Post-consumer waste is fleece, flannel, corduroy, cotton, nylon, denim, wool, and linen etc that have already passed through the consumer market.

As of 2012, 75% of pre-consumer textile waste was recycled by manufacturers, but only 15 percent of post-consumer textile waste went to recycling in the United States.

Discarded but wearable clothing is resold in retail or donated by charity organisations. About 70% of clothes donated globally reach Africa. Unwearable fabric is fashioned into industrial rags and wipes.

Post-consumer textile that cannot be re-used directly ends up in fibre reclamation mills. Fibre may consist of natural fibres like cotton, wool or synthetic fibres like nylon, polyester, acrylic etc. The textile’s composition decides its method of recycling.

Depending on the intended use of the recycled yarn, textile is graded into type and colour, after which it is shredded into “shoddy” fibre and blended with other fibres. Recycled fibres may be used for mattress production, car insulation, roofing felts, loudspeaker cones, panel linings and furniture padding.

Upcycling, a trend that has caught on in the recent years, is a way of re-fashioning left-over or discarded materials such as upholstery scraps and vintage clothing to make them valuable to the consumer again.

Why aren’t we recycling enough?

Disposal of textile waste is fraught with unaware consumers on the one hand. On the other, economic and environment experts seek to find a balance where producers and consumers will fuel supply and demand based on the true cost of production as well as of disposal.

Technology and globalisation have made it possible for the textile industry to manufacture at large scale and low cost. Consumers of fast-fashion often remain far removed from the way their clothes are produced and unaware of workers’ rights, supply chain transparency, material sourcing, sustainable development and ethical business practices.

With retailers focusing on price over quality and clothing chains restocking every week, clothing has become a contributor to the landfill problem.

Recycling itself costs resources at industrial scale. While scientific research and innovation on better recycling methods and environmentally friendly textile continues, we are discarding at an unprecedented rate creating mountains of waste, literally.

Before you move on, take a second, stop and consider what you just read.

What can you do to support mindful use and recycling of textile?

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