Types of recycling
While “open loop recycling” refers to methods by which waste is converted into new lower-quality materials with reduced functionality, the term “closed loop recycling” describes a processes that keeps materials flowing within the chain, without losing value (e.g. fibre-to-fibre recycling).
Recycling in the textile sector can be carried out using different approaches (mechanical or chemical) and using different technologies and resources (such as bottles, manufacturing waste, net waste, carpets, fabrics, etc.).
One of the most highly developed recycling processes is the mechanical recycling of synthetic fibres (especially polyester, which is the most widely used), where the material is melted and re-extruded. However, much recycled fibre does not come from textile waste but other sources such as used plastics. This process is one of the most widely used due to its low cost and simplicity. Its main limitation is that it is only suitable for thermoplastic and pure materials, and it is almost impossible to obtain materials suitable for spinning from blends.
Natural fibres, such as cotton, are also recycled mechanically. The waste is sorted by colour and material, and prepared by shredding and shearing. As fibres are shortened and damaged in the recycling process, their properties tend to deteriorate and they need to be blended with high quality virgin fibres.
Chemical recycling addresses the limitations of mechanical recycling. In this case, the waste is transformed in a chemical reactor back to its original state, recovering the quality of the original material. These closed-loop fibre-to-fibre processes are still under development as they have not yet reached the commercial stage or large-scale market penetration.
The approaches allow textiles to be part of a sustainable open-loop recycling system, where materials rise and fall in value according to market demand. However, before selecting the appropriate recycling technology, it is important not to lose sight of the specific needs of the customer in terms of the quality, cost and design they seek.
The sector faces significant challenges and barriers to recycling textile waste. One of the most important is the revaluation of fibre blends in an economical and environmentally sustainable way. Another fundamental aspect is that separation and sorting that is generally carried out manually, representing a cost and bottleneck for fast, cheap recycling.
Textile repair, reuse and recycling requires the design of mono-material products or, where appropriate, products that can be disassembled into components for recycling. This approach to incorporating environmental criteria from the initial design of the product is known as Ecodesign.
For further information, please contact Ana Rodes, Head of the Technical Unit of Circular Economy and Sustainability at AITEX at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our website aitex.es/sostenibilidad
This project is supported by the Conselleria d’Economia Sostenible, Sectors Productius, Comerç i Treball de la Generalitat Valenciana, through IVACE.