Chapter 4: Recycling, upcycling or downcycling: What can we do with post-consumer textiles?

Chapter 4: Recycling, upcycling or downcycling: What can we do with post-consumer textiles?

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The journey of post-consumer waste is a bit of a black box.  Where does it all end up? The sad matter is that less than 1% of clothing gets recycled back into new clothing. The majority ends up in the automotive industry as cleaning wipes or fillers, some goes to the cement industry and much is simply just burnt. To research what happens with textile waste we spoke to recyclers, upcyclers, crafts women, downcyclers and industry experts. This is what we learned:

Recycling

  1. Current recycling is only useful for pure cotton: Pure, white cotton is mainly used for mechanical recycling. The main interest for recycling goes to pre-production waste, as it’s clean and untouched, while Indian post-consumer waste rarely gets recycled. The only post-consumer waste that gets recycled is imported waste (from e.g. Europe) because it is already sorted.
  2. Recycled is too expensive: Because the chain for post-consumer waste is so long, the price of the post-consumer textile waste increases, making recycled clothes from post-consumer waste too expensive.
  3. The Low quality of recycled yarns: Some brands also agree that the quality of recycled fibres are not good enough, and are “waiting” till better alternatives come to the market.
  4. Brands put high requirements on waste: Brands have specific requirements for waste, often requiring large volumes and a predictable stream of waste, which is hard to guarantee for post-consumer waste.

Upcycling and downcycling

  1. Most waste (blended/dirty) cannot be recycled: Few upcyclers/recyclers can deal with blended waste (polyester blends). Chemical recycling shows great potential, but it is not yet operational at scale in India.
  2. Upcycling is mainly done at small scale: Upcycling can deal with blended materials, but current upcyclers or craftswomen can only deal with small quantities, and often struggle selling their products.
  3. Downcycled textiles end up burned or in the cement industry: Most post-consumer waste textiles are still being burned or sold to the cement industry. At “best” they are sold to be made into industrial wipes or low-value mattress/chair filling.
  4. There are few high-value alternatives for downcycling: There are very few high-value solutions (like non-wovens) for the majority of textile waste in India.

Innovator highlight: Upp! 

Upp! by UPPACT has found a solution for low-value textile waste that usually gets burned or sent to the cement industry. They create “green machines” that melt plastics and textiles together, to form a substance that can be used to make outdoor chairs, tables, building materials and more. It is a plastech mixer/melter that can deal with unsorted, unshredded and unwashed textile waste. This breakthrough technology can create regional circular ecosystems, as the material itself can be melted again into new products.

How we plan to solve it

Given low quality textile waste is the main pain point in India, we are approaching this in two ways — with CAIF & the Ikea Foundation, we are focusing on “better” downcycling alternatives. This means that we are scouting innovations and technologies that can turn low-quality textile waste into a product that is of higher value than cement or industrial wipes. Currently we’re researching non-woven innovation opportunities and the creation of outdoor furniture or materials.

Secondly, with GIZ & Concordia Textiles, we’re enabling the market entry of Purfi Global, a groundbreaking new technology that uses “reverse spinning” to not just recycle but rejuvenate waste into as-good-as-virgin quality fibre. We are also seeking more technology partners to further improve the ecosystem. The collaboration with Concordia and Enviu is funded through the develoPPP programme that GIZ implements on behalf of BMZ. Read more about what we’re doing here.

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