Historically, circular economy has two broad legs, the first relating to the flow of materials through an economy, and the second concerned with thinking about the economic conditions that may bring about such a flow. Circular economy in simple terms for the textile and apparel industry identifies a sustainable approach that starts with designing and promoting products that last and that can be reused, repaired and remanufactured. This process highlights retaining the functional value of the products, rather than just improving the materials they contain and continuously making products afresh.
Circularity has a big hook in recycling and actually gives rise to the ‘What came first’ concept. So, it is better to say that both coexist.
The process of recycling
Textile recycling as a process involves the practice of recovering old clothing and other textiles to reuse them. This process is regarded as material recovery. It is the basic skeleton for the textile recycling industry. In different countries across the globe, now there are several organizations who are engaged in recovering textiles. In the United States, for instance, this one such group is SMART, the Association of Wiping Materials, Used Clothing and Fiber Industries.
To make recycling a normal every day task, a process has to be put in plans that centres around a series of processes like donation, collection, sorting and processing of textiles, and then subsequent transportation to end users of used garments, rags or other recovered materials. Recycling is a conscious effort and it is a 2-way process that takes and then gives back to the industry. Today, this has become more of a norm all across the industry, globally.
With the textile industry evolving and understanding the importance of recycling, the industry is growing like never before. The textile industry in itself has evolved into a nearly $1 trillion industry globally. Recycling in this growing and thriving takes a small yet significant part and is ready to transform varied aspects of the industry.
Why recycling is a necessity?
Textile recycling was earlier regarded more as a reorganized segment, but it is increasingly becoming organized and connected to the mainstream industry. Precisely, a projected 100 billion garments are produced annually, worldwide. According to reports by U.S. EPA, around 17 million tons of textile municipal solid waste (MSW) was generated in 2018, about 5.8% of total MSW generation. The recycling rate for clothing was recorded at 13.0%. Keeping these numbers in mind it is obvious that recycling is becoming a urgency at present, so the faster it becomes mainstream, the quicker we will move closer to a zero landfill society.
Why landfills are a harassment?
When textile wastes land in landfills, natural fibers in the clothing piece can take up to a few weeks to a few years to decompose. Further, during this process they may release methane and CO2 gas into the atmosphere. Moreover, when synthetic textiles are poured into the landfill to decompose, then it may release toxic substances into groundwater and the surrounding soil. So, in short the whole process is extremely harmful for the environment and can actually lead to irreparable changes.
On the other hand, recycling brings in a list of environmental benefits like:
- It helps reduce landfill, and even consider the synthetic fabrics as part of the reorienting process
- Recycling lets you avoid use of virgin fibers
- Recycling reduces dependency on the environment and consumption of energy and water
- Recycling totally helps bring down pollution
- When reworking back the fibre or fabric, there is a lessened demand for dyes, which is further less harmful for the environment.
How does the recycling happen?
The process of recycling varies basis the material that needs to be recycled. Natural fabrics has a different process while synthetic fabrics is recycled in a totally different way. For natural fabrics to start with the collected material is sorted by type of material and colour. Colour sorting results in a fabric that does not need to be re-dyed. This sorting means that no re-dying is required, saving energy and avoiding pollutants.
Once the collected clothes are sorted, the textiles are are then pulled into fibers or shredded, sometimes introducing other fibers into the yarn. This process of shredding finally results into pulling the materials into short fragments or fibre strands. Further, depending on the end use of the yarn, other fibers may be incorporated. The yarn is then cleaned and mixed through a carding process. Then the yarn is re-spun and ready for subsequent use in weaving or knitting.
On the other hand, in case of polyester-based textiles, garments are shredded and then granulated for processing into polyester chips. These are subsequently melted and used to create new fibers for use in new polyester fabrics. The recycling process is not simple as it sounds and can involve several machinery and technology. Because the process is meant to reduce the environmental harm, so unless done judiciously the process can leave remnants and that can further add to the environmental problems.
What can the consumers do?
While the world over the textile industry is working their way towards making recycling a process well-accepted, the onus is also on the consumer to reduce the impact on the environment. To make the impact well-pronounced it is advisable that consumers too shop sustainable. But the idea of shopping sustainable clothing does not means buying less clothes or shopping from environment-friendly brands. Rather, the idea is more to shop recycled clothing. This way we will be able to reduce our dependency on fresh pieces and slowly fuel the growth of this industry.
There is no way that the industry can flourish unless thrift stores are made normal. The faster we make thrift a mainstream retail and e-commerce venture, the quicker we will be able to reduce the production and environmental dependency. It is time to make second-hand clothing and recycled fashion haute couture and fashionable. It is time to break away from the whole cycle of ‘textile landing into landfills’.