Four Big Barriers Facing Fibre-to-Fibre Recycling

July 5, 2021by Paula Lorenz

Fibre-to-fibre recycling technologies are receiving a lot of attention as potential solutions for end-of-life textile waste. However, even though there are many promising routes to recycling textile materials (including synthetics and natural fibres) in a closed loop, there are a number of key barriers to implementation which need to be considered before the solutions can reach scale and truly make an impact.

In this article, we outline 4 of the biggest barriers currently facing fibre-fibre recycling.

1. Sourcing the Right Feedstock

Fibre-to-fibre textile recycling requires a constant supply of textile waste. This can either be pre-consumer waste, like factory off-cuts, or post-consumer waste. The challenge is the current lack of a wider infrastructure to collect and supply these textiles to recycling facilities.

The infrastructure for textile collection and sorting varies wildly depending on the specific region and country. Countries such as the Netherlands and Germany have ‘kerbside’ collection schemes to collect post-consumer textile waste with public textile collection bins being a common sight. In the UK, the charity sector collects and sorts a large number of textiles, but consistent kerbside collection is patchy. However, the collection and diversion of all textile waste from its most likely destination: landfill, remains a significant logistical challenge. The business case for these collectors and sorters is typically driven by the amount of re-wearable clothes that can be exported to other regional markets. Currently, however, there is little economic incentive to do anything other than downcycle the unwearable fraction of used textiles, for example, into stuffing or industrial rags.

An additional challenge comes in the need for textiles which are accurately separated and graded by the composition of the fibres. This ideally needs to be automated, as it would be time-consuming and expensive, and potentially inaccurate to do this by hand (as the labels on clothes can often be wrong). This requires investment, but also a big enough demand from future recyclers who are also willing to pay, ideally, for the sorted feedstock.

Overall, more investment and innovation in the textile waste supply chain is needed, and this should be supported (similar to packaging waste) by so called ‘Extended Producer Responsibility Schemes’ (EPR) to support its development and ongoing economic viability.

2. Technology Limitations

One big obstacle in the currently (small) availability of fiber-to-fiber recycling technologies is in the range of technical challenges that developers face, particularly with regards to the extraction of impurities in the processes. These impurities can be small amounts of other materials, most prominently elastane, but also glues, or specific textile dyes. There are also a very wide range of coatings, treatments and auxiliary chemicals which could interact with a recycling process but that are also difficult to detect by sorting technologies.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges is separating polyester-cotton blended fabrics. Some technologies in development may try to retrieve both cotton and polyester, whereas others may discard one as waste product in the process, whilst recovering the other. The biggest challenge in this respect is in getting two high quality products that can be used to make new fibres again. Overall, every technology has its individual strengths and specific limitations, and no one technology is able to deal with all possible types of textile waste.

3. Cost of Recycling

Especially when it comes to small scale ‘advanced’ recycling technologies, the cost of the processes can be prohibitively expensive. Often, fibre-to-fibre recycling only becomes a feasible with the economy of scale achieved by a large throughput, to reduce the cost of the final product. When it comes to these new and emerging recycling technologies, one of the largest barriers lies in the capital cost of the plants, which increases in later development stages as the recycling plants get bigger and more complex. Usually, the process starts with a ‘pilot’ plant, then moves onto a larger ‘demonstration’ plant until the ‘full scale’ plant can be built. So, there are significant costs involved in getting the technologies to a point where they can compete economically in the first place. In terms of the actual recycling process, the process chemicals involved may be valuable, so many need to recover and recycle them in complex systems with multiple steps, which in turn also costs money. To offset these costs, it is often necessary to work with a large input and output.

4. Energy Use

When it comes to energy use and the associated carbon footprint, depending on the respective countries’ energy mix, fibre-to-fibre recycling processes can often require a lot of energy. This is why, in terms of the waste hierarchy, recycling should only then be considered when other options are exhausted, first and foremost reuse and repair. Still, when all other options are exhausted and recycling is compared to landfill and the new production of materials, recycling is generally the more energy efficient and environmentally friendly option, specifically for synthetics and man-made cellulosic fibres.

by Paula Lorenz

Associate Consultant @ Circuvate

Circuvate provides consulting and advisory services to the fashion and textiles sector. Sign up to our newsletter to receive content updates, news and details upcoming events.

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