New fabrics make recycling possible, but are they suitable for high street?

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Fibre-based textiles claim to be highly recyclable, but fashion quality controls prevent them from going mainstream

As clothing brands experiment with textile-to-textile recycling models, the emergence of new fabrics built around closed loop processes could help accelerate this progress. Examples of recent innovation in this field include Econyl, X2 Plus, Returnity and SaXcell. Based on the concept of regeneration from the outset, these fibre-based textiles are largely crafted from waste materials and claim to be highly recyclable or reusable, making them suitable for multiple life cycles.

Econyl is a type of nylon manufactured wholly from waste streams and swimwear brands were among the first to invest. Photograph: Rob Carr/Getty Images
Econyl is a type of nylon manufactured wholly from waste streams and swimwear brands were among the first to invest. Photograph: Rob Carr/Getty Images

Econyl is a type of nylon manufactured wholly from waste streams that include abandoned fishing nets and carpets. It is billed as a sustainable alternative to Nylon 6, which is traditionally sourced from caprolactam (a derivative of oil). Giulio Bonazzi, CEO of Aquafil, the company behind Econyl, says the clothing industry has been quick to take advantage of Econyl since its launch in 2011.

“Swimwear brands were among the first to invest in the use of Econyl fibres as the majority of their products are made from nylon,” says Bonazzi. “Brands such as Koru Swimwear and Adidas were impressed with our efforts to not only recover derelict fishing nets … but also expand our supply source for post-consumer waste.”

Besides swimwear, Econyl is suitable for the manufacture of sportswear, lingerie and outdoor clothing.

Returnity is a 100% recyclable polyester which is replacing not only traditional polyester, but cotton and wool-based fabrics too. According to Dutch aWEARness, which owns the European license for the product, Returnity fabrics reduce CO2 impact by 73%, waste management by 100% and water usage by 95% compared to cotton.

Returnity is mainly used in the workwear market, where takeback of corporate garments is easier to arrange. Dutch aWEARness founder Rien Otto believes the potential is there to widen its appeal: “Extension to the fashion market is possible, in particular in areas where garments are polyester-based, such as sportswear, outdoor wear and jackets.”

Yarns appropriate for consumer fashion fabrics are already under development, Rien adds: “We see that more and more brands are looking for new production methods, new collections and materials. At this moment, we are sharing our knowledge with different brands that want to change their way of working.”
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With their Garment Collecting and Shwopping in-store clothing takeback programmes, H&M and Marks & Spencer (M&S) respectively are both keeping a watchful eye on such activities. H&M’s environmental sustainability coordinator Carola Tembe says the company’s long term goal is to find a solution for reusing and recycling all textile fibres and to use yarns made out of collected textiles in its products.

“There are a lot of different exciting projects and research going on in this field, and we aim to find a scalable solution for textile-to-textile recycling with an outcome equal, or hopefully even better, than virgin fibres in the near future,” she says.

H&M has already started to use pre- and post-consumer recycled textile waste in its products, but Tembe points to limitations, particularly when it comes to closing the loop on natural fibres. “For recycled cotton, the highest amount of mechanically recycled post-consumer fibre H&M can use at the moment is 20% without compromising the quality,” she says.

“In the mechanical recycling procedure, the textile fibres are being regenerated in a way that makes the textile fibres shorter and with lower quality than virgin fibre. They need to be blended with virgin fibres to reach our quality standards.”

M&S’s general merchandise innovation delivery manager Jo Gordon sees “huge potential” in reusing post-consumer raw materials in retail fashion – the company plans to launch more closed loop clothing lines later this year. However, she acknowledges there are still challenges involved.

M&S is now looking to drive its own agenda in this space – it is working with the University of Cambridge on a project called Redress, part-funded by Innovate UK, to examine circular economy opportunities around garment recovery. “It’s a two-year project that will investigate opportunities to increase volume and value of textile recovery. It’s too early at this stage to go into further details on what the different opportunities might be, but we have committed to sharing the learnings of the project publicly in 2016,” Gordon says.

Building greater durability into fabrics that can be used again and again could pave the way for the ultimate in closed loop clothing – leasable fibres. This would allow fabric suppliers or textile manufacturers to effectively retain ownership of a garment’s raw materials.

Dutch aWEARness’ Otto says it’s a concept to aim for. “The advantage of a lease model and performance-based contracts is the continuous drive to optimise the performance of the product, the environmental performance and the costs.”

Financing such models, however, remains a huge sticking point, he adds: “We are investigating if there are possibilities for a green investment fund with pension funds or investors.”

Aquafil’s Bonazzi agrees it’s a “great concept”, but cautions: “The logistics could be a potential snag if not cost-effective to all parties, convenient for the consumer or if there is an overall lack of interest and participation from the consumer.”

** This post first appeared on the Guardian Sustainable Business blog here.

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