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System Circularity and Innovative Recycling of Textiles

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - SCIRT (System Circularity and Innovative Recycling of Textiles)

Reporting period: 2021-06-01 to 2022-11-30

Given its resource intensity, the EC has identified textiles as a ‘priority product category for the circular economy’. An important measure will be mandatory separate collection of discarded textiles as of 2025. Finding suitable outlets for these increasing volumes of collected textiles is a challenge. Currently, the non-reusable fraction is mostly downcycled, incinerated or landfilled. Less than 1% of textile waste is recycled into new fibres for clothing. In the meantime, ever more fashion brands are setting ambitious targets for the use of recycled fibres in their garments. Unfortunately, currently, the recycled fibre quality and the price tag are not aligned with market needs/demand. This supply-demand gap marks an essential problem in the textiles system. Challenges include the complex combinations of materials in garments, the limited or absolute lack of supply chain transparency and traceability. This is worsened by the growing pressure on product prices and consumption growth. In order to realize a radical change, the fashion and recycling industries would need to work together. Apart from the need for technological developments, there is also the need to put in place key enablers for a systemic circular transition. Starting from the demand side needs, SCIRT demonstrates an entire textile-to-textile recycling system for post-consumer textiles, focusing on the recycling of natural and synthetic fibres, as well as fibre blends. All relevant players along the value chain are involved, from collector to retailer. By focusing on the recycling of textiles often downcycled today, value retention is improved throughout the value chain. Not only will the business case for individual actors be validated, the overall system implications will be quantified from a financial, environmental and social life-cycle perspective. Besides the technological innovations required, SCIRT addresses enabling conditions and supporting measures facilitating the transition towards a circular system for apparel. A True Cost Model will be developed and an eco-modulated EPR system will be set up, aiming at increased value chain transparency. Special attention is given to the consumer perspective. A consumer behavioural flow intervention will be developed to impact their decision making on the purchase and disposal of textiles. Throughout the project, stakeholder involvement and validation is guaranteed via an advisory board.
After one and a half year into our project, SCIRT has taken a number of important steps towards its final objective. We have sketched out the current state of the art of textile recycling, performed a visioning exercise to determine the key elements considered essential to reach certain goals and system changes towards 2050, first citizen labs were held and we have taken first steps towards our true cost methodology. Another important element has been the outlining of the demo cases the SCIRT project will showcase. For the five brands, six demonstrator garments were described and key specifications were defined as baseline for the recycling trials. These recycling trials have been the focus of the SCIRT activities over the past months. Different recycling routes were tested on a lab and pilot scale tests: mechanical, thermo-mechanical and enzymatic recycling. The status today shows that:
• the maximum recycled content achieved today, while respecting the quality requirements and specifications as defined, is 80% for mechanically recycled cotton;
• knittability of the finest yarn (Nm60) is possible up to 40% recyclable content;
• an accurate detection method for elastane in textiles was developed. First tests on removing elastane while keeping polyester and polyamide intact seems promising;
• enzymatic hydrolysis can successfully recover polyamide or polyester from blends with wool or viscose, while the enzymes can be successfully reused for at least five cycles. The upcycling of the recovered monomers (glucose, amino acids) into other valuable compounds that might be re-integrated into textile industry is ongoing;
• trials using post-consumer multi-component textiles show additional challenges for quality of fibres. For example, in the case of wool-polyester recycling the increased contaminations cause technical difficulties in the machinery.
In parallel, a new Fibersort™ with automatic feeding system with robot picker was developed, to identify and separate textiles based on fibre and colour-composition. The automatic feeding system lowers the operational costs as it can run multiple shifts without adding extra labour costs, contributing to an economically feasible recycling system.
The specific SCIRT innovations will mostly be relevant for, and can be adopted by the wider industry in order to fully exploit the outcome of this project.
• New automatic sorting & dismantling of post-consumer textiles that meet the required specifications for textile-to-textile recycling and lower sorting cost to increase economic viability;
• New and improved recycling technologies for post-consumer textile waste that are cost-effective, with a focus on multi-fibre materials;
• Demand-driven approach to align the sorting and recycling processes to meet garment manufacturer’s design aims. Focus on market-pull of recycled materials versus push which is the today's way of working;
• New way to quantify and visualize environmental and social impacts of textile products;
• New advanced product identification and information flows throughout the value chain;
• Go beyond raising consumer awareness and look at underlying behavioural triggers that drive consumer behaviour and link this with material flows.
• Advanced concept of EPR system that meets local needs and incentivizes circular design through eco-modulation.
SCIRT aims to deliver a number of impacts to the textiles sector, its value chains and stakeholders. Environmental impacts:
• decreased waste generation and demand for primary material inputs through closed-loop recycling solutions for discarded post-consumer textiles;
• allowing for environmental externalities of textiles to be reflected in product pricing to stimulate conscious design, production and consumption;
• overall acceleration to a sustainable, circular textiles system.
Economic impacts:
• creating new business opportunities by increased sorting, dismantling and recycling of textiles;
• increased activity in the European value chain, by creating a more local system for textile-to-textile recycling and primary material cultivation leading to job opportunities;
• increased competitiveness and resilience of European apparel brands and manufacturers through circularity as a differentiating strategy.
And finally, social impacts:
• increased public awareness and behavioural change on environmental and social impacts of textile consumption;
• promotion of sustainable textile purchasing and proper disposal of garments at end-of-life;
• allowing for social externalities of textiles to be reflected in product pricing, stimulating conscious design, production and consumption practices.
The impacts will be delivered to multiple stakeholder groups within the European textiles industry and beyond.
Colorsort result
Recycled fibres_Petit Bateau demo