The invisible thread: tackling plastic in textile waste

When you think about “plastic waste” what comes to mind? For most of us, it’s visions of plastic bottles, bags and packaging. Already, huge strides are being made in tackling these forms of plastic waste from both a policy and innovation perspective with many exciting solutions scaling up to meet the challenge – see our previous blog post. However, public awareness and activism around reducing, reusing and recycling plastic tends to be limited to the plastics that are highly visible in our daily lives. What many people aren’t aware of is the plastic problem that they wrap themselves in each day: clothing.


Most consumers don’t realize that many of the terms that appear on their clothes tags – like polyester, nylon, elastane, acrylic – refer to synthetic fibers which are made with crude oil, using the same monomer (i.e. the same basic “building block”) as plastic bottles. But the stark reality is that over 60% of our clothing is made from plastic. In fact, the fashion industry is now the second-largest generator of plastic waste after the packaging industry. This is due, in part, to the stratospheric growth of fast fashion, which has seen the traditional production cycle increase from just two cycles a year, to around 50 cycles. And this trend shows no sign of slowing: it’s expected that by 2030, global consumption of apparel will have increased by 63% to 102 million tonnes, up from 62 million tonnes in 2017 (Global Fashion Agenda & Boston Consulting Group, Pulse of the Fashion Industry: 2017). The real crux of the problem however, is the linear “take-make-waste” model of the industry. A very small fraction of all discarded clothing is recycled – just 12% in 2015 – which means that the vast majority of plastic textiles end up as waste in landfills, incinerators, or the ocean. Its impact is undeniable, but when it comes to clothing, plastic is the invisible thread that is rarely considered.


In contrast to solid plastic waste, very little infrastructure currently exists for textiles collection and recycling at an individual or industrial level. Less than 1% of used clothing is recycled into new garments, with an estimated USD 500bn in value lost each year due to clothing that is not worn, donated, or recycled (Ibid). Some countries are already working hard to remedy this; Germany, for instance, collects almost three-quarters of all used clothing, reusing half and recycling one-quarter. However, if we’re going to reduce our reliance on virgin plastics, policy and regulation must work hand-in-hand with innovation.


Where do we begin?
We believe that the key to unlocking a truly sustainable circular economy for fashion lies in our ability to address the plastic in our clothing. And a circular model looks the same across all industries: the ultimate aim is to “design out waste” across the entire value chain.


The first step is to capture, retain and recycle the materials we already have within a closed-loop system. A crucial point that’s often overlooked when we talk about circularity, however, is that in order for it to be truly effective we need to keep materials not just in a closed loop, but in an infinite loop. This means ensuring that when any material is recycled it retains its quality, and can therefore continue to be recycled almost indefinitely.


Here, plastic textiles face similar challenges to plastic packaging: mechanical recycling processes do exist, but they nearly always result in downcycling, where the quality of the material is degraded to such an extent that it can be reused only once; twice at most.


What’s more, textiles often blend natural fibers with plastic-derived synthetic fibers. This poses a problem because distinct fibers require distinct recycling processes, and once mixed they are almost impossible to separate. There are methods of chemically recycling mono-materials or single-fibers (for instance 100% polyester or 100% cotton) but until recently the technology required to recycle blended textiles has been entirely insufficient.


Radically better recycling
This inability to sort and recycle textile fibers without losing quality has long been the Achilles heel of the fashion industry; but we are beginning to see amazing breakthroughs in recycling technology which has the potential to move us away from the traditional linear model, towards a circular alternative.


Ambercycle, for instance, is an LA-based company that converts end-of-life clothing into a new material that can then be recycled infinitely. Their molecular regeneration technology enables them to extract PET – the world’s most common form of plastic – from waste polyester clothing in the form of plastic pellets. These pellets are then used to create cycora™, a virgin-quality fiber that acts as a regenerated alternative to polyester, which would otherwise have been derived from crude oil. Once cycora™ reaches the end of a given lifecycle, it can be reprocessed in a similar way to other virgin materials without losing its quality, thereby allowing it to have infinite lifecycles.


Another exciting company in this space is Circ, which offers a proven, scalable solution for recycling polycotton into reusable materials. Circ’s proprietary technology is able to break down a polycotton blend into its component parts – polyester and cotton – while still retaining the integrity of the cotton fibers. This allows both raw materials to be recovered and recycled separately and therefore further utilized. Circ’s distinction lies in its ability to maintain exceptional quality throughout the whole recycling process, resulting in monomers and a high-quality cotton cellulose which can be used (in a similar way to wood-pulp) to make fibers like lyocell or rayon.


New materials, new opportunities
Alongside better recycling solutions, we also need to reconsider the design and production of textiles from the ground up, by purposely creating alternative raw materials which either biodegrade naturally or facilitate high-quality recycling. These innovative, bio-based fibers and fabrics are the new frontier of fashion and have the power to accelerate the transition away from our dependence on virgin plastics and non-renewable resources.


There’s an added urgency here: an estimated 35% of all microplastics in the ocean come from the washing of synthetic textiles – and these microplastics interfere with marine life and ultimately contaminate our own food supply. Washing a single synthetic fleece jacket can release 250,000 microfibers into wastewater. Natural alternatives to plastic fibers offer a safe and practical solution to both the waste crisis – through increased biodegradability or recyclability – and the leaching of microplastics into our environment.


We’ve been particularly inspired by PYRATES. Both an R&D company and textile supplier, PYRATES has developed its own range of PYRATEX® fabrics: smart, functional fabrics made from natural, organic, biodegradable and upcycled fibers. These fibers not only consume less energy and water than traditional fabrics, but they also emit less CO2 than synthetic fibers and have the powerful benefit of eschewing plastic altogether. PYRATES is committed to finding eco-friendly solutions at every point in the production process, from reducing dye pollution and waste to finishing PYRATEX® fabrics with steam in order to protect the fibers and maintain their properties, without applying chemical treatments.


What does the future hold?
For the first time, new technologies are offering viable, scalable solutions which have the power to change the future of textiles, the fashion industry as a whole, and most importantly – the planet. And the movement that we are already seeing from both governments and the corporate world speaks volumes: by 2025 EU countries will be obliged to collect textile waste separately, while at the same time many of the biggest fashion brands are stepping up their commitment to tackling the problem – due largely to pressure from consumers. H&M, for example, aims to use only recycled or sustainably sourced materials by 2030, while Inditex, the world’s largest fashion group, has pledged that 100% of its cotton, linen and polyester will be organic, sustainable or recycled by 2025.


For those looking to invest in this space, there has never been a better moment. We believe a new ecosystem can develop in which increased demand, infrastructure and co-operation between consumers, brands, regulators and innovators will help us to move away from our dependence on virgin plastics, towards an infinitely sustainable textile economy.

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