Two or three generations ago people kept clothes for years, often repairing them or handing them down within the family. The result was that textiles were used quite efficiently, and maximum use was extracted from them. Over the last few decades that’s changed, and both the availability of cheaper garments and the accelerating pace of fashion trends have turned clothes into short-lived commodities that are often disposed of after a couple of years, or even sometimes a matter of months.
The increased disposability of textiles matters, for two reasons. Firstly, many textiles are now made from synthetic fibers, which are often made from scarce petrochemicals. Secondly, even natural fabrics need energy to manufacture and transport, and land used for textile production isn’t available for food. That makes it vital to recycle textiles wherever possible and this is a growing sector of the waste management industry. Textiles can be recycled at several levels, either for their original purpose or for new ones.
The simplest method of textile reuse is to simply get more use out of old clothes. Many discarded garments are still completely usable and can either be sold secondhand or distributed through social programs or foreign aid projects. Recycling containers for clothing are becoming common in several countries. Usually this method is restricted to clothing that doesn’t need any repair.
Where clothing or other textiles have been heavily worn or damaged it’s normally impossible to reuse them. At that point more traditional recycling methods come into play to recover raw materials. Sorting centers usually grade textiles by quality, fabric and degree of damage or soiling. Heavily soiled textiles often go to landfill because cleaning facilities are not available, but cleaner items can be processed. One common application is to turn suitable fabrics into rags. These have multiple uses in industry, as either cleaning materials or packing. Cotton waste is especially useful and is often picked into loose fibers.
Large quantities of waste textiles are used to produce flocking –short, fine fibers often used for car interiors, door insulation or furniture padding. Depending on the intended use the processing can be basic shredding, or more sophisticated techniques designed to produce flocking of a uniform size and color. Graded fabrics can also be reduced to fibers, cleaned and straightened, then spun into new yarn suitable for knitting or weaving.
A high priority for recycling is artificial fabrics, especially those originally derived from oil. Because oil is a strictly limited resource it’s unacceptable to dispose of these unnecessarily, and polyester is a good candidate for recycling. Waste polyester textiles can be shredded, turned into pellets then chemically converted and repolymerized into polyester chips. These chips are a raw material that can be heated, recolored and spun into new polyester fabric.
Currently even countries with advanced recycling programs perform relatively badly when it comes to textiles – even the Nordic countries only achieve a 17 percent reuse rate. Increasing this would both save resources and cut CO2 emissions significantly. The main priorities are to encourage the public to repurpose textiles where possible or, if they dispose of them, to clean and sort them before doing to. This will make future recycling far easier.