The State of Circular Innovations in the Indian Fashion and Textile Industries
At the End-of-Use the product reaches the end of its lifespan and is no longer in use by its owner. The majority of textiles are not designed for circularity at the end of their use and an overwhelming majority end up in the landfill or incineration. A large percentage of these materials could be reused, recovered and recycled into new materials for the textile industry to use as new feedstock. Today around 25%37 of global garments are collected for reuse and recycling with only 1%38 of the recycled garments converted into new materials.
Sorting, which is needed for effective recycling, requires separation of textiles by material type, as well as the removal of embellishments, such as buttons and zippers. Textiles are then recycled through a mechanical or a chemical process to create fibres and yarns, or to be used as material feedstock for a different industry39. To date, India has primarily focused on mechanical recycling as a way of managing textile waste, while chemical recycling and automated sorting technologies have yet to become mainstream.
Both pre- and post-consumer textile waste are feedstocks for these recyclers. In India, post-consumer waste is mostly imported from the US and Europe, regions with robust collection systems, and used by the mechanical recycling enterprises to create new yarns, fabric and finished products. Pre-consumer waste is retrieved from domestic and international manufacturing; however, regardless of their origin, the recycled products are mainly exported to other countries through sales to large global retail brands. Various recycling hubs throughout the country process different output; the input for Panipat in North India is mainly pre-consumer waste and the fibre output is downcycled i.e. used in the production of blankets, mop heads and low-cost bedding that finds its way into domestic markets. Tirupur, on the other hand, has a closed loop system, most of the 40 tonnes of daily combustible solid waste40 generated by the Tirupur textile industry is recycled into textile materials primarily for export.
KEY FINDINGS FROM THE REGION
- India shows a clear domination of mechanical recycling as a way of managing textile waste.
- Chemical recycling and automated sorting technologies are yet to find footing in India.
- There exist mature innovations in the space of non-textile to textile recycling, primarily in recycling of PET into polyester fibre.
Additional details on sorting, mechanical recycling and chemical recycling innovations are provided below.
To enable high value recycling, technologies are required to effectively sort textiles into their various fibre compositions. This is because recyclers have specific feedstock requirements for their process. Today, textile sorting is predominantly done manually, leaving room for innovations in automation. Advanced automated sorting is considered to have a disruptive potential as it enables processing of large textile flows with a high degree of accuracy, thus enabling high value recycling at full capacity and scale.
Located in Chandigarh, Usha Yarns is a two-decade-old recycler that services both the domestic and international market with their 100% recycled content yarns made from pre-consumer cotton waste and post-consumer recycled polyester. Their feedstock of pre-consumer waste comes mainly from garmenting hubs of India and partly sourced from overseas due to the need for a feedstock of 1,000 tonnes per month.
Mechanical recycling is a process that involves deconstructing textiles resulting in fibres that can be spun into new yarn and woven into textile. Some natural fibres such as cotton, wool and cashmere respond well to mechanical recycling due to their long fibre length, while other fibres are easily damaged during the process resulting in a reduction of quality. Mechanical recycling is the most common textile recycling method and has been in existence for several decades. India is a global hub for mechanical recycling – its textile recycling sector employs more than one million and registers an annual turnover of around US$ 2 billion in processing about 5 million tonnes of material41.
An alternative supply chain exists for non-recyclable materials such as zips, buttons and other embellishments as well as domestic post-consumer waste, but it almost entirely relies on an unorganised labour force of itinerant waste workers. Non-recyclable waste, both generated within the country or imported, and waste that does not make its way to recyclers, finds its way into the large and informal economy of waste workers. Commonly known as “chindi-wallas”, and many belonging to the nomadic Waghri community of Gujarat, this is the invisible force behind the recycling of textile and in fact most forms of dry waste in India. They have traditionally done the work of collecting, repairing and re-selling used clothing from households around India, driving product life extension through low-cost, cash-based trading. Attempts have been made to organise this sector with dry waste management companies that find themselves tackling textile waste, amongst others, typically in the form of post-consumer household waste generated domestically.
Post-consumer textile waste generated in India largely does not make its way to recyclers. India is the world’s second largest exporter of textile and fabric, which accounts for about 13% of its total export earnings. Apart from producing a large volume of pre-consumer waste during the production of these exports, as more global brands enter India, it is also becoming a global consumption hub leading to an increase in post-consumer waste generation. Our research has shown that textile waste is the third largest source of municipal solid waste in India, implying that most of this waste ends up at landfills rather than with recyclers. This gap between textile waste producers and recyclers exists primarily due to the logistical challenges of a large country with far-flung manufacturing setups. Further, there is little to no organisation in the collection and aggregation of domestic textile waste, which explains the recyclers’ dependence on imported waste.
Mechanical recycling faces challenges as the process performs best with non-blended input in order to generate pure output; however, a large proportion of textile waste today comes from blended garments – notably polycotton. Additionally, optimal operation of the machinery for mechanical recycling requires hundreds of kilos per fabric per colour to run one cycle of shredding, carding and spinning42. While there are multiple established players in mechanical recycling, and the process has a significantly lower environmental footprint as compared to virgin fibres, the impact of mechanical recycling is considered to be sub-optimal, as it cannot support an endless recycling of products.
Geetanjali Woollens, one of the oldest mechanical recyclers based in Baroda, Gujarat, processes 25 tonnes of post-consumer waste a day imported from US, Europe, Australia, Japan etc. using a manual process of segregation by fabric composition and colour, done entirely by skilled women workers. The post consumer waste is then shred into fibre and spun into yarn suitable for knitting and weaving, which today finds its way into many world renowned brands for their sustainable collections. Non-recyclable waste, if any, is sold onwards to small-scale waste collectors.
Chemical recycling is a process where modifications in the textile fibre are made on the molecular level to create recycled fibre, yarn and textile. Chemical recycling is considered to have a highly disruptive impact with a potential for true circularity, given it is able to produce output of indistinguishable quality to virgin production. Today, most chemical recyclers need a high purity textile feedstock to process; however, the majority of garments on the market consist of some sort of poly-cotton blend. Blend recycling is thus an area of significant opportunity. Chemical recycling solutions for blends are highly complex and capital intensive, with most technologies only in the lab or early pilot stage. As the technological and investment challenges are overcome, chemical recycling has the potential to play an important role in reducing the environmental footprint of the industry. While the conversations around chemical recycling are nascent in the Indian landscape, the pioneers of the industry are testing out these technologies recognising chemical recycling as a key investment for securing the future of the Indian textile industry.
One such example is the Full Circle Textiles Project: Scaling Innovations in Cellulosic Recycling – a first-of-its-kind consortium of brands, manufacturers, innovators and India based Birla Cellulose as key supply chain partner. The Project’s overall aim is to investigate economically viable and scalable solutions for cellulosic chemical recycling to enable a closed loop system converting textile waste – of cotton and cotton-blend materials, to produce new man-made cellulosic fibres.
PerPETual has developed a unique chemical recycling process which transforms waste PET bottles into high quality esters, exhibiting the same quality as virgin equivalents and can be used in the production of PET-based fibres and yarns. PerPETual already produces esters from PET bottles at scale and is continuously innovating and piloting to scale their textile-to-textile operations. They are currently operating at a scale of recovering over 200 million PET bottles daily, therefore making them one of the largest PET chemical recyclers globally.
While the linear system today is damaging both society and the environment, climate crisis and resource depletion are two of the biggest challenges around the end-of-use phase of the value chain. Integrating circularity into each key stage from design to reuse and recycling will help close the loop, maximise resources and minimise waste.Komal Arora, Head - Sustainability & CSR, H&M India
Founded in 2018, Australia-based Blocktexx has developed a patent pending process that combines chemical recovery technology and advanced manufacturing to separate and recycle polyester and cotton blends. The company raised seed funding of over $500k in mid-2019, which enabled the optimisation of their technology in a pilot plant alongside trial projects with supply and demand partners.
- Investment is required in chemical recycling technologies for polyester and blended fibres specially to handle domestic post-consumer waste.
- Automated sorting technology is a clear innovation whitespace which can significantly enhance the speed and scale of recycling. However, its impact on local employment would be significant and must therefore be coupled with upskilling and training interventions.
- Chemical Recycling technologies could use existing mechanical recycling supply chains for reaching faster implementation.
- Building a new value chain for pre- and post-consumer domestic textile waste would help hedge against possible regulatory restrictions on waste imports.
- Organising waste workers and enabling aggregation of waste collected by them could help create a robust and socially impactful model of end-of-use textile management.