Sorting For Circularity Europe: An Evaluation And Commercial Assessment Of Textile Waste Across Europe
2,116,000 tonnes of PCT are collected each year in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and the United Kingdom, the focus countries of this Project. Clothing and household textiles represent 81% (1,713,960 tonnes) of the total volume collected by textile collectors in the focus countries, as the remaining 11% is footwear and 8% are waste textiles and other contaminants. The availability of PCT is expected to continue growing in the coming years, with the updated legislative directives on separate textile collection across the EU.
Sorters participating in this Project indicated 49% of collected PCT are considered fit for the domestic or global second-hand market (‘rewearables’), 6% rewearables with low market value, 26% non-rewearable, 11% footwear and the remaining 8% is waste. Currently, the most common destinations for their nonrewearable textiles are as wipers (10% of the total volume sorted), for downcycling (14%), for fibre-to-fibre recycling (2%) and the remaining to other minor destinations like refurbishment or incineration (0.1%). 7% of the Fraction not suitable to be redirected to fibre-to-fibre recycling as they are multilayered items.
From the remaining amount, the most prevalent composition found is cotton (42%), albeit elastane might be present in a relevant share of this category. Cotton is followed by a large presence of material blends (29%) of which a considerable share is made up by polycottons (11%). The breakdown by composition of this analysis differs quite significantly from the global share of fibres put on the market for some materials, such as polyester. This may be attributed to numerous reasons, namely the fact that no workwear or technical textiles are usually found in collected PCT from households, that there is a considerable timespan between consumption of textile items and their disposal, as well as diverging consumption preferences and disposal behaviours depending on fibre types.
74% of the PCT in the Fraction have been found suitable for recycling and fitting current specifications of mechanical and chemical recyclers. This means that 494,000 tonnes of textiles, 23% of the 2,116,000 tonnes of PCT collected each year in the focus countries, has the potential to be redirected to fibre-tofibre recycling.
However, this potential is currently complex to capitalise on; feedstock prices for current destinations (e.g. wipers) are more economically viable than those offered for fibre-to-fibre recycling . However, this might change as current recycling technologies are scaled and further investment is made in order to integrate operations related to automated sorting and removal of disruptors to the sorting process. Overall, a sound business case is required in order to retain sorting capacity in Europe.
To support the retention and further development of this sorting capacity in Europe, policy and upcoming legislation will play a key role in ensuring the environmental, social and financial sustainability of these stages of the clothing and textiles value chain.
The following recommendations build on the outcomes of this Project and seek to inform sectoral and governmental stakeholders on the implications of these results in the road towards circularity:
- As the industry intends to transition to a closed loop system, increased attention should be given to design products for recyclability. This Project finds that 74% of the Fraction could be used as feedstock for recycling. Whilst this is a considerable share, this still leaves 26% without a circular destination due to their composition, the presence of multiple layers and/or non-removable disruptors. This issue could be tackled both from the perspective of individual businesses, including design and product departments, but also through the development of mandatory ecodesign requirements and criteria under the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation that consequently inform ecomodulation fees for EPR systems.
- While considering designing for recyclability on the one hand, brands and manufacturers should not forget to prioritise designing for appropriate lifecycles. Hence, products that are designed for longevity should have a strong focus on durability and longevity. Products designed for cyclability and shorter life cycles should prioritise design choices that help prepare these products for effective reuse and recycling. Ultimately, recycling should be a last resort for textiles, in accordance with the waste hierarchy, and not a goal in itself.
- The handling costs of non-rewearable and low-value rewearable textiles currently puts pressure on the business case of textiles sorters. The uptake of these textiles as feedstock for fibre-to-fibre recycling is essential to increase prices offered for these textiles and improve the sorters’ business cases, given prices paid for feedstock are at least equivalent to the sales income currently generated with PCT. Textile collection and sorting is a labour intensive process, and costs connected to these activities need to be taken into account in the determination of prices for feedstock for recycling. The business case for sorting PCT to become feedstock for recycling does not (yet) allow for a return on investment in technologies required for automated sorting and hardware removal. Therefore, the creation of this infrastructure to sort for circularity requires collaborative investments of public and private value chain actors.
- Sorting activities in European countries are at risk of being unable to continue their business as usual if the share of these lower value textiles in volumes collected continues to increase. An increased dependence will be created on sorters abroad to handle textiles collected if the business case for textile sorting in Europe cannot be sustained (55% of textiles collected in focus countries are already sorted abroad). The introduction of EPR could alleviate pressure on the business case for sorters to handle future volumes of collected textiles, yet financial support now considered in some of the focus countries does not make up for future losses for sorters caused by the declining value of textiles collected. The true business case for sorting for circularity, or the lack thereof, should be considered in the design and implementation of upcoming EPR schemes across Europe.
- Whilst a considerable amount of PCT was analysed in this Project, it will need to be replicated in focus countries and beyond to create even more reliable insights into the characteristics of post-consumer textiles and their suitability for recycling. Extending the analysis to rewearable textiles as well as those found in household waste will further increase understanding of consumer behaviour and material flows. The use of NIR enables the efficient analysis of textile composition but has its limitations. Further improvement of the reliability of NIR and the addition of cross-checks with care labels and lab tests could enhance the robustness of findings of future similar analyses. Moreover, the Horizon Europe Programme has recently funded a Textile Recycling Excellence (T-REX) project including key stakeholders in the European textile sector, such as brands, waste collectors, sorters, and recyclers. This project aims to create a blueprint in Europe for creating new business opportunities based on closed loop textile recycling using post-consumer household textile waste as new feedstock and harmonise quality criteria for the various stakeholders, such as sorters and recyclers.
- Finally, as a consumer, take into account that the purchase and disposal choices you make also have an influence on the end of life of these textiles. As far as possible, try to prioritise purchases of mono material products, or blends limited to two compositions. Remember that aesthetic trims and accessories such as sequins or strass do pose a challenge for multiple recycling technologies. As a citizen, follow the instructions from your municipality to correctly dispose of your clothing and home textiles. Try repairing, reselling and swapping as activities to extend the lifetime of your products. When you are ready to dispose of them at the end-of-use, do it according to the provided local guidance —whether through bring banks, in-store or kerbside collection.