A new report published by WRAP has examined the economic factors influencing fibre2fibre recycling and assesses how it may help clothe the UK in the future.
This report, Fibre to Fibre Recycling: An Economic & Financial Sustainabiltiy Assessment, is the first detailed appraisal of the financial viability of using post-consumer clothing and textiles as feedstock for chemical and mechanical fibre2fibre recycling operations, said WRAP.
The focus on end-of-life is to help find alternatives sources to virgin fibres for manufacturing clothes and also supports WRAP’s work to reduce the impact of clothing under the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan 2020.
WRAP director Peter Maddox said: “We know that only housing, transport and food have greater environmental impacts than clothing, and with rising global demand we urgently need to secure new sources of materials and find new markets for used clothing. Fibre2fibre recycling offers a potential solution – but one that has not been properly investigated.
“Our report is the first to explain the economics of fibre2fibre recycling and will help investors, business-developers and the recycling sector navigate this relatively young, uncharted field. New processes and entrants onto the market should be monitored to inform the business case for future investment, but we already see potential for post-consumer textiles to become part of the UK’s fashion scene.”
The research was undertaken prior to the expected global shortfall in virgin textiles, and predicts the limitation in future cotton supplies, the UK’s most used fibre, with estimations suggesting a five-million-tonne cotton deficit by 2020.
WRAP’s study shows the finances for both chemical and mechanical fibre2fibre recycling processes for recovering polycotton and cotton.
It also explores the press points, and potential returns, and outlines the barriers to creating post-consumer fibre2fibre recycling, with recommendations to solve these, such as:
- Modelling shows high sensitivities in both fibre2fibre recycling processes to the quality and cost of sorted and prepared feedstocks, and to output prices
- Feedstocks (in terms of both quantity and quality) may not be economically met using manual sorting alone, particularly for chemical fibre2fibre recycling. Automated sorting using near-infrared spectroscopy may be critical to wider development
- Chemical recycling processes are commercially further off than mechanical but may offer higher economic potential in the long run
- The development of technical processes and more supply chain integration need prioritising to enable scale-up to a commercial size
- Collection and sorting are particularly important in the development of a post-consumer fibre2fibre marketplace. Demand from brands and retailers is essential, as is positive consumer perceptions of the use of post-consumer textiles.
According to WRAP, cotton and polyester are leading materials for providing the greatest potential for fibre2fibre recycling. With a growing demand for cotton and the potential for recycled cellulosic material to replace cotton, makes this material likely to sustain viable income levels for recyclers.
WRAP also said that reducing the use of problematic dyes and trims would also help increase the potential for greater recyclability of more clothes.
Further improvements in consumer messaging, and collection infrastructure, could positively influence the proportion of discarded clothing available for recycling, said the organisation.
Consumer behaviour also affects the quality of garments received, with excessive washing and tumble drying at high temperature causing damage to clothing and effecting the quality of the fibres recovered in mechanical reprocessing.
The costs associated with feedstock are dependent on factors like transport and distances travelled and the location from which they are sourced.
Recent ECAP (European Clothing Action Plan) fibre2fibre recovery trials, including the Dutch companies Tricorp, Schijvens and Havep, have shown how innovative approaches to supply chain costs can overcome these barriers.
Textile Recycling Association director Alan Wheeler said: “The Textile Recycling Association is very supportive of this important research by WRAP. The fragility of existing fibre recycling markets is presenting a significant barrier to improving the overall sustainability of the fashion industry, which as we know has a huge environmental impact.
“This research will help us to obtain a greater understanding of the market sensitivities, particularly of the fledgling chemical recycling processes, and how used textile collectors and processors may have to adapt their practices going forward to maximise value and recyclability of used textiles.”