It can often feel like you need a PhD in material science to understand the textiles that appear on garment care labels. While natural fibres, including wool and cotton, are easy to identify, synthetics such as polyester and nylon can be much harder to decode. Then throwing recycled textiles into the mix—where do we begin?
From recycled cotton to issues surrounding recycled blends, we're here to help with Gen Woo's guide to recycled textiles. Reused, recycled or repurposed, at Gen Woo, we're all about making sustainable fashion accessible, too.
The Textile Waste Issue
Newsflash! Plastic straws and single-use plastic bags are not the only items threatening the health of our planet. Believe it or not, clothes, fabric, and other textiles are huge culprits of environmental issues and the climate change crisis. Whether you're an avid recycler or not, chances are you'd have quite a lot of fabrics from old clothing or furnishings. According to the Council for Textile Recycling, the average American citizen discards 70 pounds of clothing and other textiles annually. As if that's not shocking enough, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that textile waste makes up nearly 5% of all landfills.
What is Textile Recycling?
Textile recycling is recycling old clothing and other textiles for reuse or material recovery. The necessary steps in the textile recycling process involve donating, collecting, sorting and processing textiles and subsequent transportation to end users of used garments, rags or other recovered materials. The basis for the growing textile recycling industry is, of course, the textile industry itself. The textile industry has evolved into nearly $1 trillion globally, comprising clothing, furniture and mattress material, linens, draperies, cleaning materials, leisure equipment, and many other items.
Recycled fabrics and textiles reduce energy outputs and ensure less landfill waste. You're most likely to see 'Recycled cotton' or 'Recycled polyester' labels in your day-to-day, but what do they mean?
Recycled Cotton v Recycled Polyester (Pros & Cons)
Recycled cotton usually uses discarded cotton fabric and is converted back into cotton fibre to be reused into new material. The advantages of recycled cotton include:
- Recycled cotton is exceptionally diverse and can be used for clothing, insulation, rags and padding.
- The recycled process can redirect many products that would otherwise end up in landfills.
- The amount of energy, water and dyes used to produce cotton is significantly reduced, with savings achieved by offsetting the production of new materials, with commonly recycled cotton yarns coming from textile scraps sorted by colour and already dyed.
- Using existing materials partially offsets the savings on CO2 and fossil fuel emissions. However, collecting, processing and shipping cotton or textile waste can reduce or neutralise some of these savings.
Along with the pros come cons, and the challenges of recycled cotton include:
- Recycled cotton must be blended with other fibres to create a new resistant, and long-lasting yarn, so it cannot be recycled continuously.
- The recycled cotton content will depend on the final applications. Any amount of recycled product will impact the properties of the yarn and fabric, such as uniformity and strength.
- The cost of recycled cotton is generally higher than virgin cotton.
In contrast to recycled cellulose fabrics, recycled synthetics such as recycled polyester, or RPET, is a little more complicated. BIDBI describe recycled polyester as the "fabric of the future" as about 49% of the world's clothing is made of polyester, and forecasts show this to nearly double by 2030. This innovative fabric is set to transform the textile industry by implementing circular economy practices such as reusing recycled bottles to create fabric. However, it is a short-term approach to a long-term problem: the continuing and growing pollution of plastics.
The advantages of recycled polyester include:
- The textile is made from recycled plastic bottles, using a sorting, chopping and washing system that uses half as much energy as regular polyester.
- It reduces the amount of waste in landfills, repurposing a material that does not naturally biodegrade.
- With excellent versatility, recycled polyester can be used in everything from leggings to footwear to waterproof jackets. Or even as a carrier thread for other recycled fibres, helping to improve the quality of a given textile.
The disadvantages of recycled polyester include:
- Recycling plastic has its limitations. Many garments are not made from polyester alone but are a blend of polyester and other materials, which are more difficult to recycle.
- Whilst recycled polyester keeps plastic from ending in our oceans, RPET sheds and releases microplastics.
- RPET cannot be infinitely recycled. The vast majority of recycled polyester comes from mechanical recycling, which reduces the fibre length of the material every time it's processed. The quality of recycled polyester degrades even if the raw material doesn't.
How are Fabrics and Textiles Recycled?
You can recycle textiles in two ways: mechanical (i.e. shredding) or chemical ("dissolving"). The most common method is mechanical and has been going on for many years.
This process includes shredding and carding to extract the fabric's fibres which can then be spun to make yarn for woven or knitted fabric. Mechanical recycling is used best for cotton and rarely viscose due to the fibre structure and higher fibre yield. Mechanical textile recycling shreds clothing for things like car insulation or mattress stuffing and offers fibres to be re-spun into yarns and rewoven into cloth.
Chemical textile recycling adopts a series of chemical processes to depolymerise/dissolve the fibre from the fabric into monomer/solvent form to make a new fibre compound or extract one compound from a mix. There is no loss in physical properties through the recycling process, with the technology required often adding benefits to the fibres. Chemical textile recycling is suitable for a range of fabrics such as woven and knits, catering to a wide range of products like jackets, auto parts and home decor etc.
The Issues of Recycling Fabric Blends
The chances of clothes made from a blend of fibres having a second life as fabric or clothing are more limited than if the clothing is 100% cotton, for example. If you shred the fabric of unknown or variable composition, getting the "settings" right when you spin and weave is hard. A project called Fibresort does what it says on the tin and uses technology to sort textile waste based on fibre. Clothes are put on a conveyor belt, scanned, and sorted into different piles based on composition. This menial task of sorting through textiles is vital to recycle unknown fibres and blends.
Many of us are taking small steps to reduce our textile waste, but change will take time. An overhaul is required in the textile industry, with currently, few of the clothes sent to be recycled are turned into new clothing. Known as "material to material" recycling, in 2015, less than 1% of used clothing was recycled in this way.
Turning Waste to Value: A Circular Fashion Economy
According to a report by McKinsey, more than 15 kilograms of textile waste is generated per person in Europe. The largest source of textile waste is discarded clothes and home textiles from consumers—accounting for around 85% of the total waste. The generation of textile waste is problematic, as incineration and landfills—both inside and outside Europe—are its primary end destinations. But a significant transformation lies ahead that could create a large and sustainable new industry that turns waste into value.
As the industry strives to become greener, sustainability masks a web of complex variables, including renewable energy, social compliance and financial longevity. Whether you reuse, recycle or repurpose your textiles—circularity in fashion is certainly a positive step in tackling the multiple planetary crises and the only possible basis for credible change. While most clothes with care will last many years, changing fashions mean their lifespan is artificially shortened by consumers changing tastes. Instead of producing more and more fabrics and textiles, creating garments from recycled textiles can give products a new lease of life, extending the lifespan through upcycling or transforming into an entirely new material.
2023 has seen several brands and retailers have launched initiatives to improve on this, with Gucci Continuum giving deadstock and previous-season pieces a new lease of life by making them available to independent designers, niche labels, creatives and artistic talent to incorporate into their own designs and turn archived materials into new creations. The H&M Group launched Looper Textile Co., a joint venture with a garment-collecting partner, Remondis. The company will collect and sort used and unwanted textiles for resale and recycling. Looper brings together H&M Group's extensive knowledge of textiles and Remondis' experience in recycling with the company initially operating in Europe.
At Gen Woo, we are committed to making better choices and continually seeking ways to reduce our environmental impact. We're taking time to think about our processes, production methods, and product life cycles. As a family-run business, we believe we all have a part to play in ensuring our children inherit a better, brighter world. We offer transparency, accountability, and a commitment to continuous improvement. Sourcing and using as much sustainable fibre as possible is a mission close to founder Gen Woo's heart. We use deadstock fabric, BCI organic and recycled cotton, recycled polyester, FSC viscose, Tencel, linen and bamboo across our assortment plan whilst continually exploring new and innovative materials.
We offer transparency, accountability, and a commitment to continuous improvement. To read more about our current initiatives and accreditations, visit Sustainability at Gen Woo. Or, for further information on all things slow fashion, eco-transparency and more, check out our 'Sustainability in Fashion' focused blogs.
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Above all: remember that doing your best is always better than doing nothing at all when it comes to sustainability. Slow and steady wins the race!
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