A Difficult Loop: the realities of textile recycling

March, 2022

Recycling is a much talked-about solution to the sustainability challenges faced by the textile industry. Here we look at the current state of textile recycling and discuss the key challenges.

Photography by Willeke Machiels, courtesy of TextielMuseum Tilburg

Fibre Market 2021 – Wolkat’ is a 2021 installation by Christien Meindertsma that analyses 2,000 articles of recycled clothing.


Fast fashion is notoriously the worst offender when it comes to discarded textiles, and high-profile efforts to establish recycling systems barely scratch the surface. Over 4.5 million tonnes of post-consumer textile waste is collected in Northwestern Europe every year. The Interreg-funded study Fibersort calculates that around 64% of discarded clothes are sent to the second-hand market, with almost all the remaining 36% being downcycled (e.g. shredded and turned into insulation material), landfilled or incinerated. It is thought that less than 0.1% is recycled into a new textile.

For the ‘Long Live Fashion!’ exhibition at the TextielMuseum in Tilburg until 26 March the designer Christien Meindertsma analysed a recycling container full of discarded clothing. After rescuing everything that could be re-worn for the second-hand market, the remaining items were examined using the automatic Fibersort system and catalogued according to the constituent fibres in the fabric. The results show that actual composition frequently varies from what is on the label, one of a number of issues in the development of scalable, sustainable and safe methods for recycling – or even better, upcycling – waste textiles.

The vast majority of recycled textiles on the market are made from post-industrial textile waste, which is relatively straightforward to deal with as, having not left the factory, its provenance and manufacture can be easily traced. As Meindertsma’s installation shows, post-consumer waste is an unknown quantity, both in terms of fibre composition and any chemical traces that may remain following manufacture and use. This creates problems for consumer safety and for producers who require consistency and high quality from their final products.

Photograph by Josefina Eikenaar, courtesy of TextielMuseum Tilburg

Christien Meindertsma’s samples of post-consumer waste textiles show that textile labels do not always state accurate fibre composition. A study for the Dutch organisation Circle Economy found that this can be the case in as many as 41% of instances.

Courtesy of Matteo Girola

Really textile products are specifically designed to upcycle a number of different textile waste streams, including Kvadrat’s own off-cuts and end-of-life cotton from industrial laundries.

In 2019 H&M Group and Inter IKEA Group undertook a large-scale study that analysed the chemical content of waste textiles. Working with ChemSec, the International Chemical Secretariat, they concluded that a synchronised effort for chemical compliance is needed from textile producers everywhere to ensure the transparency and traceability needed for scalable textile recycling. ChemSec have determined that recyclability, particularly with regards to chemical use in manufacture, must be considered from the earliest design stage because ‘the circular economy cannot expand as long as new materials contain chemicals of concern.’

As an awareness-raising exercise H&M have installed the first in-store garment recycling system, called Looop, in their Stockholm and Hong Kong flagships. Customers can take their old clothes to be turned directly into new ones in front of their eyes. A video following the process makes for compelling watching, but while these initiatives show promising technologies they are far from addressing the problem at a scale fit for the 2.5 million tonnes of textiles recycled in the USA in 2018, let alone the 11.3 million tonnes sent to landfill.

One of a number of possible approaches is chemical recycling, which breaks a material down to its essential molecular ‘building blocks’ before rebuilding it again, allowing for dyes and other contaminants to be filtered out along the way and resulting in a near-virgin quality output. Still only at pilot scale, this process has so far only been proven for recycling polyester and cellulose-based textiles like cotton and it is not yet clear whether the energy, water and chemical requirements for implementing the process at scale make it realistically viable.

Technology is certainly advancing and there are promising glimpses of what the future may hold. However, in the meantime the monumental scale of textile waste needs to be addressed more urgently. Recycling must be one solution amongst many, including a reduction in production and the implementation of circular systems that encourage reuse and help extend lifespans so that textiles don’t become waste for a very, very long time.


References and further reading:

Fibersort Interreg NWE project
EPA Facts and Figures about Materials, Waste and Recycling
Chemical Recycling: State of Play
What Goes Around: Enabling the circular economy by removing chemical roadblocks