In our earlier blog, Sustainable Textiles, we discussed the overall sustainability challenges faced by apparel companies and key actions being taken by large brands. However, end-of-life management of textiles remains one of the daunting challenges that impacts brand owners, municipalities, waste management companies and consumers. It is estimated that textile waste accounts for between 5-10% in Canada’s landfills. On average, every consumer in Canada produces 30-40 kilograms (66-88 lbs.) of textile waste per year. As a result, almost 85% of textiles – 500,000 tonnes per year in Ontario alone – end up in landfill. In this blog, we will review how textile-recycling programs are being implemented and carried out by governmental authorities.

Government recognises the need to divert textiles from landfills. The Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) developed the “Canada‐wide Action Plan for EPR programs” which identifies textile as one of the material categories that requires an EPR program. Likewise, various provincial governments have begun initiatives to fast track textile recycling. For instance, “Strategy for waste-free Ontario” identified a main set of materials for producer responsibility that includes clothing and other textiles. In addition, taking a leadership position, Markham has become the first municipality in North America to support textile recycling by banning textile waste from disposal. This program diverted more than 1.4 million kilograms of clothing waste from landfills in less than a year.

Keep in mind that when it comes to recycling, textile is no different to any other material. An effective recycling program needs to account for collection, processing and end markets for the material.  In terms of collection, there are essentially three main routes: curbside collection, donation bins/community reuse initiatives and retailer take back programs. The existing approach to textile diversion in North America relies on collection through donation bins. For example, in the City of Markham, residents can drop off textiles at 75 custom bins located at fire halls, community centres and condominiums across the city. By setting up donation bins at government-controlled buildings, the city is able to prevent vandalism, theft and increase accessibility to residents. Moreover, these bins are state-of the art as they can detect when the bin is full, calculate the amount of donations collected, and prevent illegal dumping and vandalism with a solar-powered security camera. Another example is found in New York City which is focusing on greatly expanding New York’s re-fashioNYC program that places textile-recycling bins in apartment buildings with more than 10 units and collects clothing on the weekends at several markets.

Concerning processing of collected textiles, in order to re-use and recycle textiles, the collected materials have to be manually sorted and graded according to their condition and the types of fibres used. They are broadly divided into two categories: Wearable textiles and Un-wearable textiles. These categories will determine how materials are commercialized in the end market.

The wearable textiles, including shoes and clothes, are either resold within the country or exported abroad. The grades of textile that are retained for sale within the country are usually store quality, vintage or retro clothing. The textiles that remain unsold within the country are compacted into large bales (up to 450 kgs) and sold to private companies for as much as $200 per bale. These may be sold into many different markets including Eastern Europe, Middle East, African and Asian countries.

The un-wearable textiles can be sold to the textile reprocessing industry for shredding and re-spinning. Mills grade incoming material according to type and colour. The colour sorting means no re-dying is needed, saving energy and avoiding pollutants. Textile materials are shredded or pulled into fibres. Depending on the end use of the yarn, other fibres may be incorporated. The blended mixtures undergo a mechanical process to clean and mix the fibres, followed by re-spinning. Knitted or woven woollen and similar materials are re-used by the textile industry for things like car insulation, roofing felt, loudspeaker cones, panel linings and furniture padding. Cotton and silk are used to make paper and cleaning cloths for a range of industries from the automotive to the mining sector. Other types of textiles can be reprocessed into fibres for upholstery, insulation and even building materials.

In the short term, success of textile recycling programs depends on the effective collaboration between charities and municipalities. Charities have been playing a key role in textile collection. In partnership with municipalities, they can deliver collaborative education and awareness campaigns, customized operational service plans, and municipal branded recycling boxes that are convenient and accessible to help increase textile waste diversion. This will result in better data management and cost savings for municipal waste management infrastructures. However, in the long term to achieve circular economy goals, it is essential to change the perception of consumers towards unwanted apparel as waste, to seeing the real value in old clothes. This requires innovative program design from producers and retailers and the creation of better textile reprocessing infrastructure.