Can clothes be recycled

Difficult recyclingHow the textile industry could solve its waste problem

Repetition on July 5, 2020

Thomas Ahlmann walks through a sorting company for used clothes from Diakonie Essen: "This is where the unsorted things arrive, and the bags with the used textiles are then opened at the sorting tables." Garment bags pile up to the left and right of him; Shirts, jackets and trousers are piled on the tables. Around ten men and women in the room examine each piece individually: "Each piece is picked up and checked for quality. The main question is: Are the things still wearable or not?"

Sorting of old clothes in Essen (Deutschlandradio / Katja Scherer)

Thomas Ahlmann heads the umbrella organization "Fairevaluation", a network of non-profit collectors of used clothes, to which the Diakonie also belongs. The companies collect old clothes, sort them and sell them either in local social department stores or to Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.

Recycling has its limits

However: there the old clothes end up in the garbage at some point and create environmental problems. And even in this country, items of clothing that cannot be sold or given away are difficult to recycle in a meaningful way. Recycling has its limits: "It is actually the case that only 50 to 60 percent of the textiles that are thrown into the used clothing collection are still wearable. And then of course the question arises: What do we do with the other 40 to 50 percent ? "

Thomas Ahlmann is the head of the umbrella organization "Fairevaluation" made up of non-profit collectors of used clothes (Deutschlandradio / Katja Scherer)

The answer: Many of the clothes that we take off are hardly usable for anything. What cannot be resold second hand, sorting companies such as the Diakonie give to recycling companies - but so far they have only produced cleaning rags, insulating material or painter's fleece from them. Instead of actually being recycled, old clothes are being down-recycled. If the old clothes are not suitable for this either, they are burned as residual waste. As an example, Ahlmann pulls out dark red trousers from one of the sacks, presumably made of polyester:

"Here we now have pajama pants, luckily washed again, but here you can see, here has the holes. The fabric is torn open. You can't pass it on like this, it's rubbish."

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Fast fashion causes high ecological costs

First fashion, then rubbish: this is a typical fate for more and more items of clothing. Many manufacturers and customers rely on fashion that costs little, survives a few washes and is available in abundance. Experts call it fast fashion. This desire for new looks makes the mountains of old clothes grow worldwide - and the rubbish. Because up to now, it has hardly been technically possible to recycle high-quality clothing. Recovering the fibers from old blouses or trousers in order to produce new clothes from them is hardly possible: "It is estimated that, viewed worldwide, less than one percent of old textiles actually end up in new clothes. In this respect, fiber recycling is found in the textile industry, so: for the clothing industry, not instead. "

Nicole Kösegi has been working as a management consultant in the industry for years and also represents the "Association for Textile Future", an alliance of the used clothing industry. She explains that from an ecological point of view, it is best to first reuse second-hand clothing. But new solutions are needed for the pieces that are out of the question. As before, only processing them into cleaning rags or burning them is a waste: "Jeans, for example, require around 6,000 liters. And if you look at what we as people have for water consumption, these 6,000 liters correspond to water consumption a person of about eight years! "

If recycling is possible, then often to materials such as fleece (picture alliance / dpa / Patrick Pleul)

Circular economy for the textile industry

Just one example that shows: The manufacture of clothes uses up enormous resources. The water is needed for growing cotton, but also for bleaching and dyeing. And that's not the only problem. In addition, a lot of chemicals are used both in the cultivation of cotton and in the processing of the fabrics: "The production of one kilo of cotton, about three kilos of chemicals are used."

In addition, the manufacture of clothing is energy-intensive and the goods usually have to be transported from far away to the sales markets. A study by the British Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that the textile industry generates more CO2 every year than international air and sea traffic combined.

"From my point of view, it is very important to implement a circular economy here for the textile industry," says Nicole Kösegi. "Against the background of the waste of resources that is simply going on at the moment. And we simply need solutions for goods that can no longer be marketed as second-hand fashion."

Raw materials are becoming scarcer

For a long time, fashion companies like Primark, Zara, H&M and Co. paid little attention to what happens to their clothes after they have been sold. It was too easy to get new raw materials. But that is changing. The raw materials such as crude oil for synthetic fibers are becoming scarcer. The growing areas for cotton are suffering from climate change. For the first time, manufacturers, start-ups and recycling companies are making serious efforts to make old clothes usable for new fashion: "Yes, if you look at the seams again here ... polo shirt ... Yes, the seams fit ... it nothing is broken ... "

In the sorting facility of Diakonie Essen, Thomas Ahlmann continues to rummage through sorted winter sweaters and crumpled polo shirts. If you ask him why recycling old clothes is so difficult, he points to a colorful blouse from a well-known cheap brand. The quality of the fibers in such products is often difficult, he says: "Well, it's basically the quality of the fibers and yarns that are used, they are thinner and shorter ..."

Demo against fast fashion in November 2019 in Kiel (imago / penofoto)

Mixtures of fibers make sorting difficult

So hardly any of it is left over when recycling But there are also problems with better quality fashion. Many pieces of clothing nowadays no longer consist of individual materials, but of fiber mixtures. This makes them comfortable to wear and easy to care for. Later in the recycling process, however, these mixtures can hardly be separated. "And the challenge in the end is to know what kind of textile I have here, how is it put together so that it can be properly recycled ..."

Apart from the fact that many materials have not yet been technically recycled, the hurdles start with sorting. The labels of clothes often only contain rough information about which fibers and chemicals they contain: "And that is the key: At the end of the chain, we have to know what is actually processed in a textile in order to then target it to be able to use the best recycling process. "

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Store information about the substances contained on the chip

But how can this be achieved? How can sorting companies know what fashion manufacturers have processed in a fabric? And without the sorters studying the label of each item of clothing for minutes?

Circular.fashion from Berlin is working on a solution to the problem - the start-up is developing a so-called circularity.ID. ID stands for identifier.

Founder Ina Budde says: "The circularity.ID is a label in the garment, which makes this information available to all stakeholders about what a product is made of. And makes it available to customers, sorting companies and recyclers."

So your company has developed a kind of chip with a lot of information. Fashion manufacturers can incorporate this chip into the label of clothing - for example into a T-shirt. It saves what the t-shirt contains and which recycling company takes it back. If the shirt ends up in the used clothes container and then at a sorting company, the employees only need to place it there on a special table with an integrated scanner:

"Since these are chips that can be scanned automatically, people don't even have to search for this chip with a scanner, they can carry out their normal sorting operations and the scanner scans it automatically and then makes it visible on a screen."

Make more than cleaning rags out of old fabrics

The employees are shown on the screen to which recycler they can forward the T-shirt. So far, however, there are only a few companies that actually use these chips. Some smaller fashion labels are already there, says founder Ina Budde: "But we are also in very close contact with many global companies that would also like to implement this ID."

In other words, there are now solutions on how to improve the sorting of old clothes. But the problems don't stop there. After all, new solutions are also required for actual recycling.

The textile recycling entrepreneur Laura Kunze (Deutschlandradio / Katja Scherer)

A visit to Mönchengladbach south of Düsseldorf. The city has a long tradition in the textile industry. The development company imat-uve is located in an old factory building full of historical weaving and spinning machines.

"This is now our pre-development ... and here our tissue development from it." Laura Kunze, a young woman with medium brown hair, is laying out several fabric samples in her office. Together with a network of European partners, her team wants to improve the previous recycling of old clothes so that not only cleaning rags but high-quality new fabrics are created: "This fabric here, for example, is what tests the very best. We already have it so imagined and they would be bought that way. "

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It all depends on the fiber length

Your team uses what is known as mechanical recycling. That means: The old textiles are torn into pieces with machines and then broken down into individual fibers with a kind of rake. In previous recycling processes, this process was very rough, says Kunze. This made the fibers short and thin and hardly usable for new fabrics. It's different with their process: "We have just changed and refined individual parameters so that we can come to the end with the optimal fiber length."

The young woman points to one of the swatches. In contrast to a painter's fleece, the fabric is a uniform gray, old fiber remains cannot be seen. Your team now wants to standardize the process and then sell the material to automobile manufacturers who can use it for car seats, floor mats or door panels, for example, explains Kunze.

"We are now not only limited to the automotive industry. So, we are also in talks with textile manufacturers, with fashion companies. We just want to achieve the automotive standard, to say that our quality is really a quality that guarantees upcycling and not a quality Downcycling. "

Chemical recycling approaches

When looking for new recycling processes, other companies do not rely on better machines, but on chemicals. The Swedish start-up Renewcell, for example, recycles old clothes with a high percentage of cotton. To do this, it throws the clothes into a chemical solution, removes non-cotton parts and thus obtains a material that is very similar to original cotton.

The hopes that such proceedings arouse are high. Renewcell, for example, has raised millions of dollars from investors, including the low-cost chain H&M. Critics, on the other hand, doubt that chemical recycling is really sustainable. Finally, chemicals are also used in the conversion. And:

"You have to say that this recycling is still in its infancy," says management consultant Nicole Kösegi. Kösegi therefore warns against excessive expectations. She says: In order for recycling to work in the future and also make economic sense, fashion itself must change: "There are of course a wide variety of types of clothing, with a wide variety of fibers and contents, but also applications, prints ... and to that extent there are not all textiles suitable for recycling. "

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Design garments that can be recycled straight away

That means: items of clothing would have to be designed differently - in other words: more recyclable. We are also working on this: the Berlin startup circular.fashion, for example, has developed a second product in addition to the info chip for sorting companies: design software for fashion manufacturers. Manufacturers could use these to look for more recyclable material combinations, explains founder Ina Budde: "First I would choose the basic material for my product and then the design software will give me good alternatives that are exactly for this one Circuit fit together, suggest. "

In order for a product to be easy to recycle, it is important, for example, that decorations - such as faux fur collars - can be removed, explains Budde. And: Certain chemicals or material combinations should also be reconsidered. "For example, if you have a jacket that traditionally has a cotton fiber as the outer material and a polyester fiber as the inner lining. You can also replace the lining with a Tencel, which also makes the product much more recyclable."

Some of these old clothes are passed on, but many end up in the trash as unsustainable (picture alliance / dpa / Peter Kneffel)

Fashion chains are innovative

Tencel is a new type of fiber made from beech and eucalyptus trees. Industry expert Nicole Kösegi also mentions another aspect that she finds important when designing clothing: namely a commitment by the textile industry to use more recycled fibers in the future.

"Really to say: For us, recycled fiber is really a completely normal part of purchasing raw materials. And this demand will also allow innovations to develop accordingly and thus a recycling industry really can emerge."

In any case, the fashion chains are swimming on the wave and are innovative. H&M, for example, launched a new collection in the spring and advertises that at least some of the fibers are recycled. However, the range of recycled clothing is still the exception, says Jochen Strähle, Professor of International Fashion Management at Reutlingen University: "I really can't think of a manufacturer who consciously processes their products in such a way that they are actually 100 percent recyclable afterwards. "

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Don't use recycling as an excuse

Strähle, like most experts in the industry, believes it is important that recycling of clothing improves. But he also warns that manufacturers shouldn't use this as an excuse to continue to stick to the fast fashion business:

"These new systems naturally have a debt relief function. That is very clear. This is the same phenomenon that we have in clothing swap sites: In the first step, of course, you also say that this is great because it extends the life cycle of the products. As a result, it leads but then often to even more consumption. "

In order to conserve resources, the industry must therefore abolish one thing above all, says Strähle: cheap mass consumption. Less and more durable clothing is needed - which is of course more expensive: "Less is indeed more. And less does not mean consuming less in terms of sales.I simply believe that it is also a question of the value of the products, the longevity of the products and the reusability of the products. "

It would therefore not work without a rethink among consumers and, above all, stricter laws, says Strähle.

Buying clothes second hand ensures a better ecological balance (imago / Westend61)

Clear guidelines from design to recycling

Back at the Diakonie Essen sorting facility: Employees there are still rolling in new old clothes by the container. An employee cleans a beige sweater and says: She alone easily landed over 50 garment bags a day.

The industry has an XXL problem - that is clear. The EU Commission is now also active. As part of its so-called "Green Deal", it wants to regulate the industry more strictly; how exactly is currently being discussed. Above all, Thomas Ahlmann from the used clothing collectors' association Fairevaluation wants clear guidelines - from design to recycling:

"In order to implement a real circular economy, we already need the idea of ​​recycling capability in design. You should consider what measures you can take to continue promoting second-hand. And of course you have to think about how to create a market for recycled products Fibers brought to life. "

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Make recycling shares a prerequisite

A system similar to that for packaging waste would be conceivable, he says. The so-called packaging law applies in Germany. This obliges manufacturers of products to report their waste and to co-finance the recycling:

"Something like this would be conceivable that we as collectors would also be relieved of the costs. And as a second point it would be conceivable that one actually thinks about a measure that makes recycled content, recycled fibers in new textiles a prerequisite."