Waste is not recognised as a material input. With our planet’s natural resources under such strain – we need to reimagine the value of waste as an existing material for future designs.
Why does the fashion industry generate so much waste?
We currently send the equivalent of one lorry-load of clothing and textiles to landfill or incineration every second, according to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation. It is a woeful situation, and overproduction and overconsumption are at the route of the problem. We consume more than double what we did two decades ago, and where we used to wear our clothes over a long period, we now dispose of them far sooner. With endless choice of cheap clothing available, our appetite for fast fashion has grown out of control. Brands are chasing more sales and profit and producing way more than we need, which leads to heavy discounting and excess inventory.
Exploitation in the supply chain supports growth and profit and is driving poverty, inequality and environmental pollution. It is a beast of a problem that will not be resolved overnight, but urgently requires action on the part of brands to produce more responsibly, and consumers to buy less, buy better and wear for longer.
I was surprised to learn that around 35% of textile waste comes from the supply chain including off-cuts, deadstock and damaged fabrics.
Imagine if textile waste managed effectively for reuse and recycling, how much pressure that would alleviate on the precious resources needed to produce virgin materials such as water, oil and trees, and the reduction in pollution and carbon emissions. Textile waste can be a viable resource if we create the infrastructure needed for recovery, sorting and recycling. Seeing waste as a material input is a strategic component of our product development at Rplanet, and we are currently trialling innovative solutions for end-of-life recycling streams to keep the materials we use in use. We want to take responsibility for the entire value-chain.
Other waste streams
Plastic waste is a grave and global issue; it persists for hundreds of years polluting rivers and oceans and is killing marine life at an alarming rate. Microplastics, of which over 30% are emitted from the laundering of synthetic clothing are now being found in Arctic waters, so small they are ingested by most marine species. Delicate ecosystems support life on our planet and are under major threat from plastic pollution.
Some brands are collecting and recycling plastic waste to create their own textiles such as Ecoal which forms part of a solution in tackling the several billion tonnes of plastic waste in existence. The Great Ocean Clean-up is a non-profit and has developed the first scalable mechanism of collecting floating plastic waste from vast ocean ‘garbage patches’, where waste has collected in a vortex of circulating ocean currents. It also aims to intercept river waste before it reaches the oceans. Investments from key partners such as Deloitte, AkzoNobel and Maersk are key to roll-out success. Other innovations include using fungi to rapidly decompose plastic to a structural level that may still be recreated into something of the same quality. These are just a few examples of the many innovations being piloted. Currently less than 10% of plastic is recycled, a huge opportunity then.
Great Pacific Garbage Patch, 3x the size of France
E-waste is less talked about and intrigues me for the potential recovery of precious metals contained in computer hardware such as gold, silver and platinum. These may be recycled infinitely and used for jewellery and quality metal components. Currently it is said less than 20% of all e-waste is recycled sustainably, concerning due to the toxins that can leach if these goods end up in landfill, and a waste of precious materials driving further extraction.
Mining can cause considerable environmental impact and requires toxic chemicals in the extraction process. The UK produces more E-waste than the EU average and is due to open its first refinery this year for extracting precious metals. Mint Bio-refining s behind the project; hastened by Brexit where transporting our circuit boards to Europe will now be cost-prohibitive.
Mary Creagh, previous chair of the Environmental Audit Committee highlighted the UK’s unsustainable approach to recycling, woefully short of where it is needed to power a circular economy. We need mass investment in scaling sustainable recycling solutions, a ban on single-use plastic and legislation to force accountability. We need to stop ’waste colonialism’, sending our waste to poorer nations, and deal with it domestically to drive innovation and employment.
What innovative recycling solutions are being scaled for the fashion industry?
There is a lot to get excited about, as we are now seeing business start-ups and pilot schemes being accelerated and scaled. Close to my heart is ECONYL® now an established brand founded by Guilio Bonazzi, CEO Aquafil. The dream of turning ‘trash to treasure’ generated real purpose to tackle the environmental of nylon waste polluting the earth. Through collaboration with the fishing industry, Aquafil set about cleaning the oceans with specialist volunteer divers to recover the nets that are killing marine animals. Other inputs include old carpets, and pre-consumer waste such as fabric scraps. The ECONYL® nylon has the potential to be recycled infinitely. This is a closed-loop fibre that can help in the creation of circular fashion. There has been a large up-take of ECONYL® nylon by luxury brands such as Gucci and Burberry, and smaller brands who are motivated by sustainable innovation. Rplanet are partnering with Aquafil to fulfil our purpose of products designed and produced responsibly, fit for a circular economy.
Circulose created by Re.newcell is a natural material helping to reduce fashion’s footprint and its impact on climate. It is a real alternative to virgin cotton where vast amounts of water and pesticides are used. It is made by recovering the cotton from worn-out clothes that cannot be resold. Sounds simple, but it has proven a sustainable challenge for years until now. Clothes are disassembled and shredded before being turned into slurry, where plastic polyester is removed leaving cellulose, a biodegradable organic polymer. The polymers are then made into fibre. Demand is growing fast, and already brands such as Levis and H&M are on board.
Worn Again Technologies here in the UK are accelerating advanced technology that recaptures raw materials from non-reusable products; textiles, PET bottles and packaging. This innovation is also able to separate-out polyester from cotton. Currently 65% of our clothing contains polyester which persists in landfill and unlike Econyl, cannot be infinitely recycled – it requires virgin polyester to boost integrity. So this is another circular initiative that is crucial in tackling textile waste and keeping materials in circulation.
LOOOP, the world’s first in-store recycling machine at H&M Stockholm.
H&M have piloted the first in-store recycling machine in Stockholm. The machine processes old clothes and turns them into new ones by shredding and knitting them, without the need for dyes or water. All the system requires is a quantity of new sustainable fibre to bolster textile strength as the shredding process shortens the fibres. It is early days, but an exciting thought to have a one-stop textile collection and recycling. This technology was only possible through collaboration between the H&M Foundation, and the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel.
Re-Verso™ are pioneering recycling technology in wool and cashmere, by regenerating it into new yarn. They currently collect, sort and transform pre-consumer wool from factory waste into new yarn and fabrics. Luxury brand Stella McCartney has partnered with them to offer sustainable cashmere, due to the huge environmental impact caused by intensive cashmere production and over-grazing – a complex issue that needs a long-term approach to reverse the damage. Innovative circular solutions like Reverso are transparent and traceable, and entirely focused on climate change where one ton of reverso raw materials reduces CO2 by 96% and water by 89%. Soon Reverso will launch a take-back program for post-consumer waste.
There is a huge incentive for brands to participate in zero waste solutions. Here are a few examples of responsible brands focused on material science for the circular economy:
We want to live in a waste-free world, however the reality is that there will be plastic in abundance for many years to come. We have the knowledge, the technology and an overwhelming purpose to recycle. We also need a major shift in how we view pre-consumer and post-consumer waste, so that we build a system around unwaste and effective management for material inputs in the next life. There is a huge opportunity to use business as a force for good. We need rapid global support and mentorship for entrepreneurs and businesses in tackling these key issues, because scaling innovation moves us closer to a waste-free world, and faster.