By Rick Leblanc – www.thebalancesmb.com
The basis for the growing textile recycling industry is, of course, the textile industry itself. The textile industry has evolved into a nearly $1 trillion industry globally, comprising clothing, as well as furniture and mattress material, linens, draperies, cleaning materials, leisure equipment, and many other items.
The Urgency to Recycle Textiles
Once in landfills, natural fibers can take a few weeks to a few years to decompose. They may release methane and CO2 gas into the atmosphere. Additionally, synthetic textiles are designed not to decompose. In the landfill, they may release toxic substances into groundwater and surrounding soil.
Textile recycling offers the following environmental benefits:
Decreases landfill space requirements, bearing in mind that synthetic fiber products do not decompose and those natural fibers may release greenhouse gasses
- Avoided use of virgin fibers
- Reduced consumption of energy and water
- Pollution avoidance
- Lessened demand for dyes.
- Sources of Textiles for Recycling
Textiles for recycling are generated from two primary sources. These sources include:
1. post-consumer, including garments, vehicle upholstery, household items and others.
2. Pre-consumer, including scrap created as a by-product from yarn and fabric manufacture, as well as the post-industrial scrap textiles from other industries.
Wearable and Reused Textiles
In the European Union, about 50% of collected textiles are recycled and about 50% are reused. Approximately 35% of donated clothes are turned into industrial rags. Most of the reused clothing is exported to other countries. Oxfam, a British charitable organization, estimates 70% of their clothing donations end up in Africa. The issue of sending used clothing to Africa has generated some degree of controversy as to the benefits of such initiatives, where it can have an adverse impact on local textile industries, native dress, and local waste generation.
The Recycling Process
For textiles to be recycled, there are fundamental differences between natural and synthetic fibers. For natural textiles:
- The incoming unwearable material is sorted by type of material and color. Color sorting results in a fabric that does not need to be re-dyed. The color sorting means no re-dying is required, saving energy and avoiding pollutants.
- Textiles are then pulled into fibers or shredded, sometimes introducing other fibers into the yarn. Materials are shredded or pulled into fibers. Depending on the end use of the yarn, other fibers may be incorporated.
- The yarn is then cleaned and mixed through a carding process
- Then the yarn is re-spun and ready for subsequent use in weaving or knitting.
- Some fibers are not spun into yards, however. Some are compressed for textile filling such as in mattresses.
In the case of polyester-based textiles, garments are shredded and then granulated for processing into polyester chips. These are subsequently melted and used to create new fibers for use in new polyester fabrics.