Sorting For Circularity Europe: An Evaluation And Commercial Assessment Of Textile Waste Across Europe
Once clothing and household textiles are disposed of by citizens or end-users of commercial or industrial institutions within Europe, they enter the end-of-use value chain for PCT. They are mostly collected via bring banks, reaching percentages as high as 78%34 and 88%35 of all textiles separately collected for France and Germany respectively. This collection method is usually complemented with indoor collection, either across the counter or with small bring banks placed in second-hand shops or first-hand retail stores. In the UK, the situation differs, as the predominant mode of collection is via charity shops (48%), whilst bring banks are the second most common method of collection.36 A smaller percentage is also collected via kerbside collection across these countries, although this method is usually more rare. Each method presents both advantages as well as challenges. For example, bring banks usually generate high collection volumes, however, present more risks of polluting the collected textiles with household waste than indoor collection.37 Kerbside collection on the other hand, usually presents higher costs and also higher theft risks.38
Image 4: Collection bin (Source: Koopera)
From the point of collection, textiles go into sorting facilities either locally or abroad. The aim of textile sorting activities is to ensure that textiles are used at their highest potential, both from an environmental and an economic perspective. These processes are widespread across European facilities and the sorting capacity of focus countries range from around 40,000 tonnes per year in Spain, to 200,000 tonnes in Poland, and 234,000 tonnes in the Netherlands, according to 2020 estimates39, 40, as shown in Figure 4. Sorting capacity is not always fully utilised for textiles collected domestically. For instance, in the Netherlands, 55% of collected textiles are sorted abroad, and most of the local sorting capacity is used to sort textiles from Germany.41 These current intra-EU trade dynamics may be explained due to lower costs of purchasing collected textiles from other countries as a result of differences in the fees paid for collecting textiles in each geography. Hence, for sorting facilities in countries where collected textiles are more expensive to buy, collected textiles from neighbouring countries are attractive feedstock for their operations.42
FIGURE 4: TEXTILES COLLECTION VOLUMES AND SORTING CAPACITY IN FOCUS COUNTRIES. SOURCE: CIRCLE ECONOMY AND FASHION FOR GOOD (2022)
Manual sorting operations are conducted in a step by step approach focussing on 1) the removal of nontextile items (like household waste and footwear), 2) the identification of articles with a value on the second-hand market (‘rewearables’), as well as separating those articles which have other end-markets, such as for fibre-to-fibre recycling, wiping or downcycling (‘non-rewearables’). The destinations of collected volumes in the focus countries is illustrated in Figure 5 below.
FIGURE 5: SHARES OF TEXTILE COLLECTION AND SORTING BY DESTINATION IN FOCUS COUNTRIES, INCLUDING PRICE RANGES. SOURCE: CIRCLE ECONOMY AND FASHION FOR GOOD
Typically, 55% of the input arriving at the sorting facilities can be deemed as fit for the second-hand textiles market.43 The share of rewearable garments is extremely important for the sorting system today, as the revenue is primarily derived from approximately 30% of the highest quality textiles from the reuse categories.44 This means that the top quality rewearable textiles, for example from well-known brands or those that still have a price tag on them (also known as Cream), is estimated to account for 50% of the revenue, and that all of the rewearable fractions together may account for up to 90% of a businesses’ revenue.45
A minor part of these high quality rewearable items are re-sold locally (±10% of volumes collected). Yet, the European sorting industry serves mostly global second-hand markets. In 2020, the EU-28 exported around 1.2 million tonnes of used textiles and worn clothing, mainly to Pakistan, UAE, Tunisia, Cameroon, Ukraine and Turkey.46 The average price for these textiles to other regions was €0.76 euro per kilo in 2019.47 Germany, the UK, Poland, Belgium, and the Netherlands fall within the largest ten exporters of used textiles and worn clothing (in weight) globally.48
For countries such as Germany, although the amount of locally collected textiles is extremely high (over 1,000,000 tonnes each year), the sorting capacity estimates of the country are quite low in comparison (190,500 tonnes). This difference means that a large amount of collected textiles are exported and sorted abroad. Concerning the import of used textiles and worn clothing, the Netherlands is also the fifth major importer in weight globally; while Poland ranks tenth. This indicates the presence of an established sorting capacity that can handle not only locally used textiles, but also input from abroad, mostly from other European countries.49
After an item is classified as non-rewearable, it is sorted for specific destinations, separately from the rewearables. Non-rewearables sorting is focused on identifying textiles fit for downcycling, wiping, refurbishment, and fibre-to-fibre recycling or to be used for energy recovery. These end-markets usually have lower prices than the rewearable textiles, and from the Sorters involved in the study, they may represent on average around 26% of the sorted textiles, whilst only accounting for 10% or less of a facilities’ revenue.50 These sorted goods may also serve local or global markets. Additionally, the non-rewearable share of sorted textiles is foreseen to rise in the coming years, as Sorters participating in this project indicate that approximately 6% of the sorted volume is now considered low-value rewearable items that European sorters already struggle to find financially viable end-markets for. This is due to a combination of diverse reasons, yet mostly related to market saturation of global second-hand textile trade and lowering quality of textiles reaching the facilities.51 As collection rates are expected to increase across European countries in the near future, the market for low value rewearable textiles will be saturated leaving these textiles as potential feedstock for fibre-to-fibre recycling. Hence, these recycling technologies need to be ready to handle these textiles as well. Although that is the case for mechanical recycling technologies today, certain chemical recycling technologies are yet to achieve the necessary readiness level to handle the expected volumes of low value post-consumer textiles collected.
Figure 5 shows the different destinations of the sorted textiles included in the sample of this Project and the share they represent from the total sample. Wipers are the destination for 10% of sorted textiles whilst prices are between € 0.13 and 0.45 per kilo. Downcycling to applications such as fibres for insulation, filling or non-woven for automotive and other industries represents the destination for 14% of the textiles and prices are € 0.08 per kilo for feedstock. Low-value rewearables represent 6% of the sorted textiles and prices per kilo are € 0.77 per kilo. Finally, feedstock for fibre-to-fibre recycling represents 2% of sorted textiles and prices are currently between € 0.02 and € 0.14 per kilo.52 Sorters currently sell cotton, wool and acrylic textiles as feedstock for fibre-to-fibre recycling to mechanical recyclers, and increasing volumes of cotton textiles are being sold to chemical recyclers.
Both the non-rewearable and the low-value rewearable fractions are the focal point of this composition analysis. For readability purposes, throughout the next chapters we will refer to these two categories as ‘the Fraction’ solely.