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AMSTERDAM – Almost 90 per cent of waste textile items collected in a recent EU backed study were found to be either rewearable or recyclable. But the excessive use of elastane by global apparel brands is reducing options for ‘closing the loop’ in the global textile industry.

These are two findings from a major new study which saw researchers sort through five tonnes of textiles from the UK, France, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands in bid to gain insight into the make-up of existing textile waste streams.

They found almost two thirds (66 per cent) of the textile items were rewearable while 36 per cent were a combination of non-rewearable items, bedding and waste. More than a fifth (22 per cent) of the non-rewearable items were found to be recyclable, although this is very much dependent on the scaling up of current recycling technology and infrastructure.

The findings of the research, carried out as part of the Fibresort project, raise some serious questions for apparel sustainability teams as well as policy makers. At present, just 1 per cent of all textiles are fully recycled while 20 million tonnes of post-consumer textiles are landfilled across Europe and North America every year simply because these items have reached the end of their first use phase.

The report addresses the thorny issue of the amount of elastane currently used in apparel. Elastane was present in nearly one out of every five non-rewearable single material items sorted. The report says: “The presence of high amounts of elastane and three and more fibre blends decreases the chance that a textile will be able to be recycled into a new textile. These important aspects need to be taken into consideration when designing for circularity.”

Recent years have seen an upturn in the use of elastane in apparel, however, its use – as well as the presence of several fibre blends – makes recycling much more difficult.

Adds the report: “The high amount of rewearables found in this sample set is beneficial to collectors and sorters, as this represents the majority of their revenue. However, collectors and sorters report that textile quality has been declining in recent years and the portion of non-rewearables have been increasing. Because of this, they need to find new means to increase the economic value of the non-rewearable portion of collected textiles. Being able to Fibersort and sell some of those non-rewearables as recycling feedstocks offers an opportunity to increase economic viability of collecting and sorting.

“Being able to determine the amount of the post-consumer textiles that can be used for recycling feedstock is necessary for recycling technologies. Recyclers must know how much feedstock they will have access to. This study revealed a first indication of the potential to source textile to textile recycling feedstocks from within North West Europe. Within our sample set of post-consumer textiles, nearly one-quarter of all of the post-consumer textiles collected today have the potential to become feedstock for textile to textile recycling. This represents a large portion of post-consumer textiles that are often downcycled, landfilled or incinerated.”

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