While the use of recycled polyester in textiles is finally picking up, we need to build our own recycling supply chain as the race for PET bottles has started.
The realization that our industry is responsible for almost 10% of global industrial CO2 (with a rapidly increasing trend) has led to an impressive awakening in just two years, following the first publication of figures in early 2018 and increasing public pressure. In the meantime, the CEOs of more than 100 brands have signed the UN’s “Fashion Charter for Climate Action”, the first “playbook” for climate-minimized collections has been published by the Charter working groups, and a voluntary commitment to climate neutrality by 2030, the year the latest IPCC report considers required to safeguard the 1.5° limit, is by now almost standard among the industry’s pioneers.
However, there is little time left to celebrate this heroic change of course, for which the road ahead will still present a number of challenges. Instead, we should promptly turn our attention to a second issue that has been ignored by us for too long and that carries comparable “dynamite” within it: the rapidly increasing flow of used textiles that ends up in landfills or incineration. With yearly about 50 million tons of synthetic fibers, we contribute about 12% to the global stream of plastics with which we flood our planet after (ever shorter) consumption. And the political and social pressure is growing ever faster to put a stop to this. The EU plastic tax on non-recycled plastic packaging from the beginning of 2021 will only be a first step.
Beverage industry waste streams dry up
More and more companies are now recognizing this challenge and are increasingly pushing their supply chains towards the use of recycled raw materials. With 80% polyester content in synthetic textiles, the focus here is on yarn production that mostly sources from PET bottles. And the comparison of jackets or pants with the number of recycled bottles used is indeed nowadays a powerful marketing statement. However, we should start asking ourselves how long we can rely on the well-sorted waste streams of the beverage industry before a cross-industrial competition breaks out for this easy pathway.
Recycling rate for PET bottles has already reached values of up to 60%
Rough estimates suggest that worldwide, just over half of all plastic is currently landfilled, about a quarter is incinerated and about 20% is recycled. That leaves potential for improvement. But the recycling rate for PET bottles is much higher and has already reached values between 30% (US) and 60% (EU). This means that the growth potential of this source is limited – far too little in view of the exploding needs that an increasingly environmentally conscious plastics industry requires as a source of raw materials. And the odds are low that we will keep a privileged place at the table.
Keeping raw materials in circulation – instead of dumping them
So if we don’t want to search the unsorted piles of waste at landfills or in front of furnaces for future raw materials, we should get together as quickly as possible to rebuild our supply chains in order to keep our own raw materials in circulation – rather than dumping it.
Since three years, the Wear2Wear consortium has demonstrated that this has long been technologically possible. At this year’s ISPO Munich, Sympatex and Schoeller, the founding partners, presented the first functional jacket made of recycled textiles. Its focus on polyester offers the easiest access point with the biggest leverage, available recycling technologies and the best characteristics for mono-material products.
It’s now time to scale it up on an industrial level. All we would need is to connect the dots between the garment collectors, the recyclers and our yarn suppliers – and collectively decide to feed the process with products that are based on a design for circularity.