Recycling clothes: how feasible is it really?

When you’re finished with fashion, where does it go?

Australians love donating clothes to ‘op shops’ – on global rankings, we’re one of the largest givers in the developed world, carting more than 190,000 tonnes (or 720 million garments) each year to our favourite charity stores.

This sounds extremely virtuous: who doesn’t like thinking that their once-loved clothes will find a second home? The reality is more complicated – and far less sustainable.

As a new report by the Australian Fashion Council (published in consortium with Charitable Recycling Australia, Queensland University of Technology, Sustainable Resource Use and WRAP) points out, it takes an army of op shop staff and volunteers to sort and handle 720 million items of clothing, many of which inevitably end up discarded (27,000 tonnes) into landfill. 

Faced with increasing pressure to cut its environmental footprint (the fashion industry is responsible for about 10% of annual global carbon emissions) the sector is slowly pivoting to what’s called the circular economy: where materials are made to be reused and recycled by design.

Most clothing is not designed to be recycled and even if it is, the infrastructure is still in its infancy.

A crucial part of the circular economy is the ability to recycle clothing, ideally into new garments that can be reworn and remade ad infinitum. However, as experts indicate, most clothing is not designed to be recycled and even if it is, the infrastructure needed to recycle clothes at scale is still in its infancy.

Recycling clothing isn’t like recycling paper, glass or metal, points out University of Technology Sydney’s associate professor in fashion and textiles Dr Timo Rissanen. Clothes are endlessly variable and unpredictable, and as a result “they’re not ideal for recycling technologies, which require a steady and consistent source material”.

Previously on the science of clothes: How technology and science are helping transform fashion from unsustainable to on-demand

“Even a seemingly simple garment may contain multiple materials, with fibre blends such as cotton/polyester and cotton/elastane being common,” he says.

Dr Dylan Hegh from Deakin University’s Institute for Frontier Materials agrees. “The biggest problem when it comes to recycling clothes is mixed materials,” he says. “Take a pair of jeans as an example. They’re not just cotton: they include dye, studs, zippers, the stitching, which is usually made of polyester, the finish and coatings, and if they’re stretchy there is also elastane – even the tag is typically a cellulose base.

“Trying to recycle that is like unscrambling an omelette.”

“Trying to recycle that is like unscrambling an omelette.”

Dylan Hegh

Clothes were once made out of largely natural fibres such as cotton, silk, wool, linen and hemp, but synthetic fibres such as polyester (an oil-based fibre) have come to dominate, accounting for more than half of all clothing made.

This reliance on non-renewable resources (98 million tonnes per year), including oil, to produce synthetic fibres is not only a significant polluter, but it makes pulling clothing apart and re-fashioning them so difficult and expensive that many labels don’t bother. As a result, only 20% of clothing is collected for reuse or recycling.

And while brands increasingly claim that recycled polyester and cotton make up a large part of their sustainability initiative, that recycled polyester tends to come from plastic bottles, and recycled cotton is usually made from manufacturing waste.

What really happens

So how is clothing actually recycled, and is it an effective strategy to reduce the industry’s climate footprint? Depending on the material composition of the garment, there are two methods: mechanical and chemical.

Mechanical textile recycling is the process of reducing fabric back into fibres without the use of any chemicals. This process relies on shredding, tearing or carding to separate the fibres, which can then be spun into a new yarn or used to make non-woven fabrics. It works best with single, non-blended fabrics.

Chemical recycling, as the name suggests, involves the use of chemical processes to pull apart the textile at a molecular level. “Different solvents are used to dissolve the fabrics, such as cotton down to cellulose, wool down to protein and so on,” says Hegh.

It’s also only through chemicals that we can separate cellulose (present in both cotton and linen) and polyester from textile and clothing waste for new uses, including in new clothing.

“It’s good to see brands starting to take responsibility for their end-of-life items, and paying to ensure they don’t end up in landfill.”

Michael Elias

The output products are often similar in quality as virgin fabric, with no loss in physical properties through the recycling process.

Mechanical recycling is usually cheaper and has a lower carbon footprint than chemical recycling, but Hegh says it’s not truly circular, as fabrics tend to get degraded every time they are re-spun until they eventually have to be thrown out.

One company trying to specialise in mechanical recycling is Upparel, located in the suburb of Braeside, in south-eastern Melbourne. Founder and CEO Michael Elias started the company with his wife Tina after realising their first business, MANRAGS (a male socks and jocks subscription business) was contributing to the enormous waste left by textiles.

“If we continue to consume as much as we do, we need to be prepared to pay to have it recycled.”

Michael Elias

The couple changed course in 2019 and set up a textile recycling scheme, later rebranding to Upparel, which allows people to leave up to 10kg of textiles in any condition (but not underwear – Elias says it’s an occupational health and safety issue they haven’t been able to get around yet) and have it collected from their doorstep.

“We take excess stock, faulty stocks, customer returns from all sorts of brands as well, such as Target and Cotton On,” Elias says. “It’s good to see brands starting to take responsibility for their end-of-life items, and paying to ensure they don’t end up in landfill.”

Upparel’s team of about 50 then manually sort the textiles into different piles. They give clothes that can be reworn to charities (about 60% of stock), social enterprises and other op shops nationally (who are first required to agree to not send the clothing offshore). Those beyond rewear are mechanically recycled.

Aerial view of clothing waste dump with a car dwarfed by a huge pile of clothes
A clothing waste dump in the Atacama Desert, Chile. Credit: picture alliance / Getty Images

“Where items are not fit for wear, we break down the textiles into different materials and different fabrics,” Elias says. “From there, we take these textiles and tear them into a super fine cushion-like fibre material which can be used again in pillows, insulation, furniture etc.”

Mechanical recycling has its limitations, such as only working effectively on non-blended fabrics. As so many clothes are laced with polyester, Elias had to develop another solution for garments that are not fit to wear but which he can’t recycle: he sends them to Australia’s only commercially viable chemical recycling plant, BlockTexx.

The start-up, based in Logan, south of Brisbane, is one of the first and largest textile recycling plants capable of separating and recycling blends of cotton and polyester fibres on a large scale. Founders Graham Ross and Adrian Jones, who both come from a retail and textile background, began working with Queensland University of Technology (QUT) researchers in 2018 to develop a process that could separate cotton and polyester in clothing.

The result was a chemical separation process called SOFT (separation of fibre technology), which turns cotton to cellulose and polyester to flake for industrial uses such as injection moulding.

“Our process separates blended fibres into blocks of polyester and cellulose, which we then produce into pellets that can be converted into fibre,” says Jones. As there is no spinning industry left in Australia, BlockTexx sells the pallets overseas where they are re-spun into fibre to make garments and industrial products such as geo fabrics – large polymer or polyester sheeting used in the construction industry.

Jones says BlockTexx’s initial focus will be on commercial fabrics, including old towels and sheets from hotels and hospitals, with a goal to process 4000 tonnes of recycled textiles a year (about 18 million shirts).

Both Elias and Jones emphasise the commercial viability of their services, and the need for a collective mind shift when it comes to paying for recycled goods.

“We receive up to 10 tonnes of textiles each day, and the most we have done is 70 tonnes in one day,” Elias says. “Upparel staff are all paid to sift through this; they are not volunteers. If we continue to consume as much as we do, we need to be prepared to pay to have it recycled.”

Unless we shift our collective mindset, recycling isn’t going to make much of a difference.

Jones also points out that eventually, fashion brands that tout clothing made from recycled polyester, which comes primarily from plastic bottles, will have to look elsewhere for source material as bottle manufacturers retain their supply.

“If bottle manufactures decide to keep and recycle all their bottles, the fashion brands who have said they want to be 100% recycled by 2030 will have problems obtaining the source material unless fibre to fibre recycling gets bigger,” he says.

While the expansion of clothing recycling plants is one way to tackle the wastefulness of the fashion industry, Rissanen says that unless we shift our collective mindset about the world around us and our relationship to consumption, recycling isn’t going to make much of a difference.

“One of the two reports launched by the [Australian Fashion Council] in August states that we are buying 56 garments per person per year in Australia,” he says. “Even if all of it got recycled, there are no planetary resources to support that level of over-consumption.”

Consumers may view product recyclability as a “get out of jail free card” that makes consumption more acceptable.

Rissanen also points out that the ability to recycle can sometimes increase consumption, with one study arguing that consumers may view product recyclability as a “get out of jail free card” that makes consumption more acceptable. After conducting two behaviour-based experiments in both lab and field settings, the researchers found that the availability of a recycling option can actually increase the use of a product, especially if the consumer faces no direct cost to consume (in the experiments’ case, the products were office paper and bathroom paper towels).

“The general focus on increasing recycling options and convenience as the best course of action to help the environment is based on a key assumption that a consumer’s consumption level is independent of the availability of the option to recycle: our results cast doubt on this assumption,” the researchers write.

Rissanen says wearing items longer and buying second-hand is preferable to purchasing recycled fibre clothes.

“Even second-hand fashion isn’t without problems when you consider the scale and pace of clothing production today,” he says. “In places like Australia, we need to reduce our consumption urgently.”

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