March 1, 2024

Why fashion ‘recycling’ isn’t saving the planet – Euractiv

The industry sells itself on producing clothes from “recycled materials”, but these are mostly made from recycled plastics that cannot be recycled a second time. NGOs explain that the only solution is to buy less clothes.

At H&M’s flagship store in Paris it’s difficult to find clothes that don’t claim to be made from “recycled materials”.

Last year, 79% of the polyester in its collections came from recycled materials and next year it intends for everything to be recycled.

The Swedish fast fashion giant told AFP that the recycled material allows the “industry to reduce its dependence on virgin polyester made from fossil fuels”.

The problem is that “93% of all textiles recycled today come from plastic bottles, not old clothes,” said Urska Trunk of campaign group Changing Markets.

In other words, from fossil fuels.

And while a plastic bottle can be recycled five or six times, a recycled polyester T-shirt “can never be recycled again,” Trunk said.

Almost all recycled polyester is made from PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic bottles, according to the nonprofit Textile Exchange.

In Europe, most textile waste is discarded or burned. Only 22% is recycled or reused – and most of it is turned into insulation, mattress stuffing or cleaning cloths.

“Less than 1% of the fabric used to produce clothes is recycled into new clothes,” the European Commission told AFP.

Textile recycling is “much more complex than recycling other materials such as glass or paper,” according to Lenzing, an Austrian manufacturer famous for its wood-based fibers.

Not recyclable

For starters, clothing made with more than two fibers is, for now, considered non-recyclable.

Clothes that can be recycled must be separated by color and then zippers, buttons, studs and other materials removed.

It is often expensive and labor-intensive, experts say, although pilot projects are beginning to emerge in Europe, said Lisa Panhuber of Greenpeace.

However, the technology is still “in its infancy”, according to Trunk.

Reusing cotton may seem like the obvious answer. But when cotton is recycled, the quality drops so much that it often has to be woven with other materials, experts say, which brings us back to the problem of blended fabrics.

To square the recycling loop, fashion brands have been using recycled plastic – to the anger and frustration of the food industry, which pays for the collection of used PET bottles.

“Let us be clear: this is not circularity,” the drinks industry wrote in an open letter to the European Parliament last year, denouncing the fashion industry’s “worrying tendency” to make “green claims relating to the use of recycled material”.

Polyester recycling is another dead end, according to Lauriane Veillard, from the Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) network.

It is often impure and mixed with other materials such as elastane or Lycra, which “prevents any recycling”, he insisted.

Jean-Baptiste Sultan, from the French NGO Carbone 4, also criticizes polyester. “From manufacturing to recycling, (polyester) pollutes water, air and soil.”

In fact, environmental groups have been demanding that the textile industry stop manufacturing polyester entirely – despite it making up more than half of its production, according to Textile Exchange.

Carbon footprint

So where do all those mountains of unrecyclable polyester and blended fabrics go after Western consumers dutifully take them to recycling bins?

Almost half of the textile waste collected in Europe ends up in African second-hand markets – most controversially in Ghana – or, more often, is deposited in “open landfills”, according to 2019 data from the European Environment Agency (EEA).

Another 41% of the bloc’s textile waste goes to Asia, he added, mainly “to dedicated economic zones where it is separated and processed”.

“Used textiles are mostly recycled into industrial rags or filler, or re-exported for recycling in other Asian countries or for reuse in Africa,” the agency said.

A new EU rule adopted in November aims to ensure that waste exports are recycled rather than discarded.

But the EEA admitted there was “a lack of consistent data on the quantities and fate of used textiles and textile waste in Europe”.

In fact, NGOs told AFP that much of Europe’s clothing waste sent to Asia goes to “Export Processing Zones,” which Paul Roeland of the Clean Clothes Campaign said are “notorious for providing ‘lawless’ enclaves. ‘, where even the low labor standards of Pakistan and India are not observed.”

Exporting “clothes to countries with low labor costs for sorting is also a horror in terms of carbon footprint,” said Marc Minassian of Pellenc ST, which makes optical sorting machines used in recycling.

Recycling ‘myth’

The terrible truth is that “recycling is a myth for clothing,” insisted Panhuber, a consumer expert at Greenpeace.

Others, however, are turning to new plant fibers, with German brand Hugo Boss using Pinatex made from pineapple leaves in some of its sneakers.

But some experts warn that we may be falling into another trap. Thomas Ebele, from the brand SloWeAre, questioned the way these non-woven fibers are joined “in most cases” with thermoplastic polyester or PLA.

This means that although the clothes may be “sometimes broken,” they are not recyclable, he said.

“Biodegradable does not mean compostable”, he warned, saying that some of these fibers have to be decomposed industrially.

But beyond all that, “the biggest problem is the quantity of clothes made,” said Celeste Grillet, from Carbone 4.

For Panhuber and Greenpeace, the solution is simple: buy less clothes.

“We have to reduce consumption,” she said – repair, “reuse and recycle.”

EU countries prepare for textile recycling big bang

Recycling textiles is not an easy task, as industrial processes are still in their infancy. However, recyclers say the imminent obligation for EU countries to collect and separate used textiles will help the nascent industry get off the ground.

Read more with Euractiv

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