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A new circular economy concept: from textile waste towards chemical and textile industries feedstock

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Discarded textile now a raw material for the chemical and textile industries

Not enough textile waste is recycled across Europe. To tackle this, the RESYNTEX project created a new circular economy model for the textile and chemical industries, by recovering secondary raw materials from unwearable textile waste.

Climate Change and Environment
Society
Energy

The EU textile industry generates waste estimated at 16 million tonnes per year. Around two-thirds of this waste is thrown in landfills or incinerated, with a high environmental impact and at great cost. Valuable resources held within the waste are also lost. RESYNTEX is changing this with its innovative pilot project – a textile recycling plant – which recycles 100 tonnes of waste per year. This pilot installation in Slovenia transforms textile waste into secondary raw materials for the chemical and textile industryies, creating circularity and reducing environmental impacts. The project also extracted resources and chemicals from textile waste and recycled them. It used innovative technologies covering the whole textile value chain, where the sorted textile waste is chemically treated to extract resources such as protein-based fibres to be used for producing wood panel adhesives, and cellulosic fibres for producing bioethanol. Polyamide (PA) and polyester (PET) recovery was also carried out to produce new chemicals and plastics.

A holistic approach to textile recycling and re-use

Industrial symbiosis is the process by which waste or by‐products of an industrial process become the raw materials for another. Materials can thus be used more sustainably and contribute to the business model. “Together with the chemical industry, the textile industry can benefit from utilising secondary textile streams, which results in industrial symbiosis. Low-grade textile fibres recycled into new chemical products get a new life instead of being thrown away or incinerated,” notes project technical coordinator Dr Aleksandra Lobnik. Although companies spend much on textile recycling and reuse technologies, current solutions involve a number of challenges. “Recycling fibres and converting them into high-value feedstock requires precise sorting as 50 % of textiles are made from blended fibres. Technologies handling mixed fibres are not readily available,” explains Dr Lobnik. “What’s more, although much is invested in plastic-to-textile, textile-to-textile or textile-to-chemical innovation, there is no easy solution within mechanical recycling.” RESYNTEX put into practice a holistic approach to address the fragmented nature of textile waste processing via novel chemical pathways. It demonstrated automated fibre-sorting technology that yields approximately 85 % clean textile material of very high purity (99 %). The technology sorts fibre by composition, and is complemented by the use of near-infrared-spectroscopy technology. Project partners integrated the automated sorting process with the most promising chemical and enzymatic processes for extracting protein- and cellulose-based natural fibres as well as PA and PET fibres. Liquid and solid waste treatment, and water recycling technologies were also integrated in the process.

Implementation of EU directives

Waste management is undergoing significant changes in the EU. In 2015, the EC adopted an action plan to help accelerate Europe's transition towards a circular economy. The action plan sets out measures to ‘close the loop’ of product lifecycles: from production and consumption to waste management and the market for secondary raw materials. Several documents suggest amendments of waste-related directives. Textile waste is not directly addressed but the landfill directive should be amended so that the fraction of municipal solid waste to be landfilled is restricted to 10 % by 2030. This boosts activities to divert waste (including textile waste) from landfill to incineration or recycling. RESYNTEX is changing the environmental landscape of the textile industry in Europe. Its proposed sustainable recycling and chemical processes unlock the value of post-consumer textiles and create a tipping point for a closed-loop textile industry. To achieve effective exploitation of the project results, the Spanish company and coordinator behind the project, TECNALIA, is negotiating with European companies related to robotics manufacturing and robotics integration. It is working on furthering technology transfer and reaching exploitation agreements with interested companies, including license agreements of previously protected or patented results.

Keywords

RESYNTEX, fibres, textile waste, recycling, raw material, chemical industry, sorting, circular economy, polyamid (PA), polyester (PET)

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