A high risk of hazardous “legacy chemicals” being carried over from the original textile has been identified. Suston asks Oeko-Tex if there’s still hope for a circular economy when our sources might be contaminated.
In response to mounting criticism of the impacts of fast-fashion, in 2017 H&M committed to 100% recycled or other sustainably sourced materials by 2030. Around the same time, it commenced an industry study to analyze the chemical content of post-consumer textiles from around the world that were en route to be recycled. The findings released this October were less than encouraging: Hazardous chemicals were found in 78% of post-consumer cotton, 90% of post-consumer polyester and 100% of post-consumer wool samples.
One of the more common compounds found in cotton and wool, for example, was nonylphenol (NPEO), a widely banned chemical associated with reproductive issues that is also extremely toxic to aquatic life. In polyester, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) were frequently detected, known to be highly carcinogenic. Flame retardants, PFCs, phthalates, heavy metals, the list went on.
At a time when recycled materials uptake is at last surging across the apparels sector, this news should have gone off like a bomb. Yet the months following the report’s release were surprisingly silent. Perhaps this bomb was a dud?
“Should have come as no surprise”
Ben Mead is the Managing Director of Hohenstein Institute USA, a founding member of the Oeko-Tex Association, and he has another explanation:
“The H&M study was very broad, and currently provides the best insight into recycled input toxicity that I’m aware of. It may sound like silence since the report came out, but you can bet there are many brands that are actively looking into this and gathering their own data right now.”
He continues to explain that the industry is most likely being cautious not to frighten people away from recycling without all the facts on the table – especially now that recycling has finally just begun gaining momentum.
“But these findings should have come as no surprise. There’s just no getting around it: What goes in, goes out. Somehow, somewhere.”
The potential impacts of these legacy chemicals, however, can vary greatly. It is possible that some of the chemicals found in the raw materials may be washed out or removed at various stages of the recycling and manufacturing process. For example, chemically recycled polyester is broken down into its base-chemical molecules, meaning this process is capable of separating the legacy chemicals from the polyester polymers. Though less chemically intensive a process, mechanical recycling would likely be more prone to passing on legacy chemicals if other precautionary measures are not taken such as using pre-certified inputs.
At this point, however, it seems there are still far more questions than answers.
“It’s hard to speculate just how widespread this issue is, and you simply don’t know unless you collect some information,” shares Ben Mead, who continues:
“For some the risk may be small, for others much larger. But without input management systems in place, the only way to really know if the end products are safe is to test them.”
A solution to legacy chemicals
In this regard, Oeko-Tex has both bases covered, offering a toolkit of standards that provide confidence in a responsible chemicals input management in production and that end products are safe from hazardous chemicals.
As recycled inputs can come from a wide range of sources, recycled materials pose unique challenges in certification compared to virgin materials. Oeko-Tex therefore applies more stringent rules for certifying recycled materials such as a proven quality management system and more information about the source of the materials, and more frequent testing than for virgin materials.
“At Oeko-Tex, the issue of legacy chemicals has certainly been bubbling up lately and has more and more brands interested in certificates for their inputs.”
The fate of the circular economy
Though the H&M report results were indeed concerning, Ben Mead considers the situation to be manageable, and that circularity is still the way of the future:
“I wouldn’t say the fate of the circular economy is in trouble. Recycled is the trajectory we’re on, and I believe sufficient legacy chemicals safeguards can be integrated into the supply chain.”
Achieving the necessary level of confidence will require traceability, however, and Ben Mead says that legacy chemicals are just one more good motivator for brands who haven’t already done so to get to know their supply chains, to look at the data, and identify the risks.
If navigating supply chains sounds like a headache, so does the bad PR of having toxic NPEOs discovered in a brand’s gear. On this note, Ben Mead adds one more incentive to take a proactive approach to legacy chemicals:
“Brands should know that many of these chemicals are banned and that they are still obligated to meet legal requirements – there’s no exemption just because they’re recycled!”
Oeko-Tex, The International Association for Research and Testing in the Field of Textile and Leather Ecology, is a worldwide association of 18 independent research and test institutes that sets standards for safer textile and leather production and products. Founded in 1992, the Oeko-Tex portfolio of independent certifications and product labels has enabled companies along the textile and leather chain, as well as consumers, to make responsible decisions in favor of products that are safer, more environmentally friendly and manufactured in a socially responsible way. Today, more than 21,000 companies work with Oeko-Tex, and over 235,000 certifications have been issued, covering countless products.
Hohenstein, a founding member of Oeko-Tex, is the industry expert and thought leader on textiles’ effect on human and environmental health and wellbeing, from biodegradation and chemical testing to fit, comfort and product performance.
Main photo: Nomadsoul1/iStock