Why recycling fashion doesn’t save the environment

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At H&M’s Paris flagship store, it’s hard to find clothing that doesn’t claim to be made from “recycled materials.”

Last year, 79% of the polyester in its collection was made from recycled materials, and next year it hopes to recycle it all.

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The Swedish fast-fashion giant told AFP that recycled materials would allow the industry to “reduce the industry’s dependence on virgin polyester made from fossil fuels.”

The problem is that “93% of recycled textiles today come from plastic bottles, not old clothes,” says Urska Trunk of the campaign group Changing Markets.

In other words, from fossil fuels.

And while a plastic bottle can be recycled five or six times, a recycled polyester T-shirt “can never be recycled again,” Trunk said.

According to the nonprofit Textile Exchange, nearly all recycled polyester is made from PET (polyethylene terephthalate), which is made from plastic bottles.

In Europe, most textile waste is dumped or incinerated. Only 22% is recycled or reused, and most of it is turned into insulation, mattress padding, or cleaning cloths.

“Less than 1% of the fabric used in the production of clothing is recycled into new clothing,” the European Commission told AFP.

Recycling fibers is “much more complex than recycling other materials such as glass or paper,” said Lenzing, an Austrian manufacturer famous for its wood fibres.

Not recyclable

First, clothing made from more than one fiber is currently considered non-recyclable.

Recyclable clothing should be separated by color and zippers, buttons, studs, and other materials removed.

Greenpeace’s Lisa Panhuber said pilot projects are starting to appear in Europe, but experts say they are often expensive and labor intensive.

But Trunk says the technology is still in its “early stages.”

Reusing cotton may seem like an obvious answer. But experts say recycling cotton reduces its quality so much that it often has to be woven with other materials, leaving us once again facing the problem of mixed fabrics.

In a bid to expand recycling, fashion brands are using recycled plastic instead, drawing anger and frustration from the food industry, which pays for the collection of used plastic bottles.

“Let me be clear: this is not circular,” the drinks industry wrote in a chilling open letter to the European Parliament last year, with the fashion industry making “green claims related to the use of recycled materials.” It denounced the “worrying trend” of

Polyester recycling is also at an impasse, says Lauriane Veillard of the Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) network.

It is often impure and mixed with other materials such as elastane and Lycra, which “hinders recycling”, she claimed.

Jean-Baptiste Sultan of the French NGO Carbone 4 has similarly criticized polyester. “From manufacturing to recycling,[polyester]pollutes water, air and soil.”

In fact, environmental groups are calling on the textile industry to stop producing polyester altogether, even though polyester accounts for more than half of the textile industry’s output, according to Textile Exchange.

carbon footprint

So where do all the piles of non-recyclable polyester and blended fabrics go after Western consumers dutifully drop them off in the recycling bin?

According to 2019 European Environment Agency (EEA) statistics, almost half of the textile waste collected in Europe ends up in second-hand markets in Africa, most controversially in Ghana, or in “open landfills.” ” is often discarded.

It added that a further 41% of the region’s textile waste goes to Asia, with most of it “sent to dedicated special economic zones where it is separated and processed.”

“The majority of used textiles are downcycled into industrial rags and stuffing or re-exported for recycling in other Asian countries or for reuse in Africa,” the agency said.

New EU rules adopted in November aim to ensure that exported waste is recycled rather than dumped.

However, the EEA acknowledged that “there is a lack of consistent data on the volume and fate of used textiles and textile waste in Europe”.

Indeed, NGOs told AFP that much of Europe’s discarded clothing destined for Asia ends up in “export processing zones.” Paul Rowland, of the Clean Closes Campaign, said the borough was “notorious for providing ‘lawless’ enclaves, even home to poor labor standards in Pakistan and India”. Not observed.”

Mark Minassian of Perenc ST, which manufactures optical sorting machines used in recycling, said: “Exporting clothing to countries where sorting labor costs are cheap is terrible from a carbon footprint standpoint.” says.

Recycling of “myths”

The scary truth is that “clothing recycling is a myth,” argued Greenpeace consumer expert Panhuber.

But some companies are turning to new plant fibers, such as German brand Hugo Boss, which uses Pinatex, made from pineapple leaves, in some of its sneakers.

But some experts warn we could be falling into another trap. Thomas Ebele of the SloWeAre label questioned the way these nonwoven fibers are “most often” integrated with thermoplastic polyester or PLA.

This means that while clothing “may be broken,” it cannot be recycled.

“Just because it’s biodegradable doesn’t mean it’s compostable,” he cautioned, noting that some of these fibers need to be broken down industrially.

But beyond that, “the biggest issue is the amount of clothing being made,” said Carbon 4’s Celeste Grillet.

For Panhuber and Greenpeace, the solution is simple. It’s about buying fewer clothes.

“We need to consume less, repair, reuse and upcycle,” she says.

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