Waste Management Review Explores prospects for the future in tackling the scale of fashion waste.
The War on Waste calculated that 6000 kilograms of clothing is dumped in landfill every 10 minutes – showing a giant pile of waste to demonstrate the impact of fashion waste.
According to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation report, A New Textiles Economy, clothing production across the globe has doubled in the past 15 years, which it attributes to fast fashion – more collections at lower prices. The term fast fashion has been used to describe a retail model towards seasonable trends, which leads to trends emerging and dropping in a matter of months.
Australian Bureau of Statistics data also shows 501,000 tonnes, or 88 per cent of leather and textiles, were sent to landfill in 2009-10.
It’s a problem that is not going away anytime soon, with global fashion waste predicted to grow by 60 per cent between 2015 and 2030, Global Fashion Agenda’s Pulse of the Fashion Industry report shows.
As the A New Textiles Economy report shows, companies like Nike and H&M are embracing the circular economy concept. Shoe giant Adidas has also vowed to only use recycled plastics in its products by 2024.
But will this and other developments contribute to reducing our fast fashion footprint? Waste Management Review explores the recyclability of current fashion items, while looking at the lessons of the past and possible areas of consideration for the future.
Organic and ethically-sourced clothing, zero waste clothing or boycotting fast fashion have all been mooted as ways of turning the problem on its head, but as one fashion and textiles designer learnt, this wasn’t so simple.
Mark Liu, Chancellors Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Technology Sydney, more than 10 years ago presented a “Zero Waste” Fashion collection at London Fashion Week. The process involved taking waste materials from other industries such as scrap materials and leftover fabric and using advanced mathematics to design a new patternmaking technique akin to a jigsaw puzzle.
He says that conventional pattern cutting creates about 15 per cent wastage of material, even if a computer has optimised it. He says it was initially appealing to fashion buyers but once they saw the cost of it – it wasn’t so popular. Mark says that part of the challenge is finding an inexpensive product that is recyclable, which takes money and oversight. H&M in its 2017 sustainability report indicates that 35 per cent of its materials were recyclable or sustainably sourced, with a target of 100 per cent by 2035.
“The labels don’t exist anymore. For example, the tricky part is finding organic cotton, as cotton is expensive. A small manufacturer doesn’t have the same pulling power as a large manufacturer,” he says.
According to H&M Group’s 2016 annual report, the company acknowledges that when a garment is no longer usable, recycling is the best option, but notes that because the technology “doesn’t exist for this to happen”, it is working to increase the share of products that can be recycled.
“We’re really vastly underprepared for this. Cotton is difficult to recycle because with current technology, the cotton fibres get thinner and shorter and this means the quality goes down.”
“If you want to regenerate them more, you almost have to take them on a molecular level, break them down into the monomers and stick them back together again which requires some solvents,” he says.
“Solvents can be recycled, but the facilities to do that are limited in Australia.”
Mark says taking the polycotton blend apart can be difficult as it is hard to blend it in with a new product without reducing its value. He says that even if it could be recycled, the question then becomes would it be recycled due to the cost of energy.
Mark says the technology to create recyclable fashion is still in its infancy, noting that many of the promising technologies use bacteria or fungi to grow or biodegrade the fabrics. For example, the University of Technology Sydney is working on algal-based technology – which could hold potential in creating a sustainable fashion product.
One issue in particular that faces textile recycling is the sorting process which often needs to account for the different colours and compositions of textiles. On top of this, one of the main challenges that face textile recyclers is that advanced techniques that require the use of chemicals make the process less cost effective.
Dr Nolene Byrne from Deakin University’s Institute for Frontier Materials (IFM) says population growth and the rapid fashion cycles of the industry has led to millions of tonnes of clothes and other textiles being landfilled. “Textile waste is a global challenge with significant environmental implications, and we’ve been working for more than four years to address this problem with a viable textile recycling solution,” Nolene says.
In collaboration with PhD candidate Beini Zeng, Nolene and the team at IFM have developed a method of turning denim into a lightweight material that can be used in cartilage bioscaffolding, in water filtration and as a separator for advanced battery technology.
This material is classified as an aerogel, which are sometimes referred to as solid or frozen smoke because of their low density. By using environmentally friendly chemicals, the team at IFM are able to add value to the materials and can address the limitations that affect other less cost-effective methods.
Nolene says the research team chose denim because it is made from cotton, a natural polymer derived from cellulose, but also because it is such an iconic fashion material that can be found in most wardrobes.
“Cellulose is a versatile renewable material, so we can use liquid solvents on waste denim to allow it to be dissolved and regenerated into an aerogel, or a variety of different forms,” she says.
“When we reformed the cellulose, we got something we didn’t expect – an aerogel with a unique porous structure and nanoscopic tunnels running through the sample.”
The sticky nature of the denim cellulose solution is what makes the aerogel unique and helps its use as synthetic cartilage. Denim is also made entirely out of cotton, meaning it is much easier to sort and separate compared with a polycotton blend.
Aerogels were first created in 1931, but the majority are made of silica, carbon or metal oxides. The new research is now entering a pilot trial and aims to be available at a commercial scale within three to five years.
Blake Lindley, Senior Consultant at Edge Environment, helped develop the Circular Threads project – which has been investigating a business case to recycle unwanted corporate workwear since 2016.
Blake says corporate uniforms provide a logical starting point for the emergent textile recovery industry, as consistency among garments and the economic levers of corporate social responsibility and branding risks are driving strong market interest.
“Circular Threads is about mobilising the fashion industry and also the scale of recycling opportunities by using corporate uniforms as a stepping stone to broader post-consumer textile recycling,” Blake says.
“Our interest is in supporting providers to commercialise recycling technology. The industry is now at the investment decision stage looking at what is out there, what can we bank on and what are people willing to pay? Helping provide solid data, and linkage to procurement and scale is what Circular Threads is about.”
Circular Threads is working with textile procurement across construction, corporate uniforms and hospitality sectors to increase demand for recovered natural and synthetic fibres.
“The first recycling plant that can recycle uniforms will do well as there is massive demand for it,” Blake says.
He says that secure disposal and certification currently required for many corporate uniforms costs well above landfill.
Textile designer and sustainability strategist Clara Vuletich, who has created sustainable designs used by brands such as H&M and Gucci, says awareness has been building in the northern hemisphere with clothing labels increasingly taking responsibility for products at their end-of-life.
She says the Australian industry has been slow to progress in the past 12 months, but predicts this will escalate.
Clara cites recyclable fashion technology Worn Again Technologies as an example of initial signs of progress in this space, which has received some initial support from H&M. According to its website, H&M has also partnered with the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) to develop technologies to recycle clothes made from textile blends into new clothes.
In September, the H&M Foundation (the owners of H&M Group) and HKRITA opened two first-of-its-kind textile recycling facilities in Hong Kong, which use a hydrothermal method to recycle cotton and polyester into new fibres. The recycling technology consists of chemical and hydrothermal treatments to recycle cotton and polyester blends into new fabric and yarns. The cotton is extracted as cellulose powder, and can be applied to functional products or regenerated fibres. HKRITA is now focusing its research on improving the quality of the separated fibres and cellulose powders to develop more sustainable solutions for the industry.