It is now well known that Europe has a massive textile waste problem – currently 7 to 7.5 million tons are generated annually (mainly in private households), but only about 30 to 35 percent is collected separately and less than 1 percent of textile waste is currently recycled into new clothing.
European waste legislation aims to change that, and accordingly, all EU member states will have to collect textile waste separately over the next two and a half years. While some countries are already developing systems to meet the waste collection challenge, there is currently no large-scale plan for processing this waste.
This is where the new study “Scaling textile recycling in Europe – turning waste into value” by McKinsey & Company comes in, supported by Euratex’s ReHubs initiative, which aims to achieve fiber-to-fiber recycling for 2.5 million tons of textile waste by 2030.
One-fifth of textile waste could become new garments
According to the McKinsey study, at least one-fifth of textile waste could become new clothing, and a circular economy for textiles could create 15,000 new jobs in Europe by 2030 and reach a market size of 6 to 8 billion euros. However, this would require kick-off investments of 6 to 7 billion euros.
In a webinar on Thursday evening, four authors of the study – Karl-Hendrik-Magnus, Jonatan Janmark, Nikolai Langguth and Moa Strand – presented different scenarios of how textile waste volumes and collection and recycling rates will develop by 2030. They also showed the potential of the recycling industry in Europe and came to the positive conclusion that “Europe will lead the way for the world”.
“If the full technical recycling potential were realised and more textiles were collected, between 18 and 26 percent of textile waste could be recycled to make new garments as early as 2030,” said Magnus, senior partner and head of fashion industry consulting at McKinsey in Germany. “Scaled textile recycling would not only save four million tons of CO2, but also create a profitable industry with 15,000 jobs in Europe.”
Value through recycling
The authors emphasised that the expansion of the textile value chain – i.e. textile recycling – not only has social and environmental benefits, but also economic ones. Therefore, they answered the question posed by the participants as to whether this value chain could be sufficiently monetised and made profitable with a clear ‘yes’.
“The investment in fiber-to-fiber recycling is worthwhile not only for sustainability reasons. New raw materials can be created during recycling that would enable more fashion production in Europe. This could generate even more value for this recycling industry,” said Janmark.
However, to realise the full potential of textile recycling, a total of around 6 to 7 billion euros in investments will be needed by 2030, and this throughout the value chain, for example for collecting and sorting textile waste and the establishment of recycling facilities.
However, there are also a number of other challenges to overcome – for one, the massive fragmentation of feedstock and the fact that it consists of largely mixed fibers. These still pose a problem, as fiber sorting is currently still largely manual and at an immature stage. Technical upgrades and greater automation are the need of the hour. “However, this is not doomsday, but means great opportunities,” agreed the authors.
One figure that impressed participants was a 70 percent fiber-to-fiber recycling rate that could be possible by 2030. The authors explained that this figure was the result of an in-depth analysis that took into account the current nature of textiles in circulation and their composition.
“This so-called fiber-to-fiber recycling, where textile fibers are turned into new fibers for fashion, is the most sustainable way to generate something new with value from waste,” explained Janmark. To achieve this, the collection rate could be increased to 50 to 80 percent by 2030, or the circular economy that produces new fibers for fashion from textile waste could be scaled up to 18 to 26 percent. Currently, it is less than 1 percent.
Different recycling technologies
This move towards a circular economy is made possible by new technologies, such as mechanical recycling of materials like cotton, thermo-mechanical recycling, which creates polymers, and chemical recycling for the reuse of polyester, which is currently at a trial stage. Thermo-chemical recycling is also a possibility, generating syngas.
Each technology also needs to consider energy efficiency and the ability to produce virgin-like quality, which is often antiproportional. “Here’s the good news: the multiple types of recycling technologies and innovations are not in conflict with each other, but we need them all,” explained Langguth.
“However, the collection and processing of old clothing and textiles still faces major challenges due to fragmented, small-scale structures and still mostly manual work processes. Clothing waste has to be sorted according to quality criteria, buttons and zippers removed and fiber compositions clearly identified. Many products made of mixed fibers still pose an unsolved problem for fiber-to-fiber recycling,” finds the study.
Here, nearshoring is the keyword and an opportunity for Europe. After all, recycling should take place where the waste material is generated. Afterwards, the recycled material can be forwarded – for garment production in Asia, for example – as transport becomes more efficient after the recycling process.
The webinar participants – including brands, investors and government organisations – wondered if consumers would be willing to engage and pay more for recycled/sustainable products. The answer has to do with the different target groups: the younger they are, the more willing to seek out and purchase recyclable or sustainable materials. But circular design will also play a big role and minimise waste from the beginning.