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Textiles and the circular economy: current challenges and solutions

Global fashion carries a number of negative externalities, but more than anything else, it is simply linear: 73% of textile waste is incinerated or landfilled on a global scale – one full truck of clothes travels to the landfill or incinerator every second. The European Union is responding with forthcoming legislation and sees a solution in applying the principles of the circular economy. What solutions are available today?

The current fashion industry carries with it a diverse range of negative externalities

It is facing a number of challenges, starting with the effects of the coronavirus crisis, which has highlighted not only the fragility of current business models and supply chains, but also a number of negative externalities associated with clothing production, distribution and sales. The system creates a number of negative environmental impacts and is at odds with the principles of the circular economy. Globally, less than one percent of textile fibers return to circulation without loss of quality, while the consumption of primary raw materials in the textile industry leads to significant environmental pollution and negative climate impacts.

The circular economy is the EU’s response to global challenges

The above-mentioned challenges, together with the efforts to make the European textile industry more competitive and to transform it towards a circular economy, have led to the fact that textiles are considered by the European Commission as one of the priorities of the Circular Economy Action Plan. The Commission will publish a European strategy for sustainable textiles this year. Its main focus is the effort to implement sustainability criteria for textile production, including product design, which must comply with the principles of circular economics. 

The European Union also seeks to improve the collection, sorting and recycling of textile waste, with the help of a guide to the implementation of the new EU Waste Directive, which obliges Member States to make separate sorting of textile waste separately from 2025.Other legislative innovations include the discussed model of extended producer responsibility for textiles, innovation and promised support for circular business models, which are based on extending the life cycle of clothing, circular materials and international cooperation in the field of transparency of fashion chains. Check for for more info.

What are the barriers to the circular economy in the fashion industry?

The key issues for the development of the circular economy in the fashion sector, both at the level of the European Union and the Czech Republic, include the following problems:

  • insufficient capacity of the collection network for textile waste,
  • low rate of clothing recycling and its technological backwardness,
  • short life cycle of clothes, use of low quality materials,
  • fragmented global supply chains that lack transparency and control over the materials placed on the market,
  • the absence of circular business models, such as the concept of clothing as a service.

Circular textiles: 3 examples of good practice

Technological innovations are already responding to the need to transform the fashion industry. What do the technologies that are necessary for circular textile handling look like?  

Fibersort: optical sorting of worn clothing

At present, clothing that is collected through textile waste containers is sorted mostly manually. It may seem sufficient in terms of clothing reuse, but this is not the case for recycling purposes. Recycling technologies need homogeneous materials with similar composition and color for inputs. It is enabled by optical sorting lines based on optical technologies. An example of this is the unique optical sorting line, which can sort up to 950 kg of clothes per hour, according to colors and material composition. Such precisely sorted inputs enable many times more efficient clothing recycling.

Circulose: the circular revolution for chemical cotton recycling

Currently, only 12% of end-of-life clothing undergoes cascading recycling. Under the term cascade recycling, we can imagine that textile fibers lose quality during the recycling process. The output of mechanically recycled clothing is textiles used in the construction or automotive sectors. However, real recycling in accordance with the principles of circular economics consists in regenerating fibers in a chemical environment. It is no quality loss and clothing can be put back into circulation.

An example of such real recycling is the technology behind Circulosis from the Swedish company. The company accepts clothing with a high content of cotton or viscose. After being free of contaminants, zippers and buttons, dissolves in a chemical reagent, resulting in a new textile fabric that is biodegradable. “Circulosis” has very good results in the LCA study, is produced exclusively using renewable energy sources and is now used.

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