When considering textile recycling one must understand what the material consists of. Most textiles are composites of cotton (biodegradable material) and synthetic plastics. The composition of the textile will affect its durability and method of recycling. Textile waste can be classified as either pre-consumer or post-consumer. Pre-consumer textile waste consists of by-product materials from the textile, fiber and cotton industries. Each year 750,000 tons of this waste is recycled into new raw materials for the automotive, furniture, mattress, coarse yarn, home furnishings, paper and other industries. Through the efforts of this industry approximately 75 percent of the pre-consumer textile waste that is generated is diverted from our landfills and recycled. Post-consumer textile waste consists of any type of garments or household article, made of some manufactured textile that the owner no longer needs and decides to discard. These articles are discarded either because they are worn out, damaged, outgrown, or have gone out of fashion. They are sometimes given to charities but more typically are disposed of into the trash and end up in municipal landfills.
Workers sort and separate collected textiles into good quality clothing which can be reused or worn. Wardrobe turnaround is so fast nowadays those donations are often just a season old and, increasingly, unworn .There is a trend of moving these from developed countries to developing countries either for charity or sold at a cheaper price. In UK Many charities are reworking unsold clothing stock into seasonal trends to sell in their shops: Oxfam is working with London College of Fashion students, Cancer Research UK with the eco-fashion collective Revamp and Traid with its in-house label Traidremade.
Many international organizations collect used textiles from developed countries as a donation to those third world countries. This recycling practice is encouraged because it helps to reduce unwanted waste while providing clothing to those in need. But do the benefits of recycling outweigh the carbon cost of shipping? Second-hand clothing exports can damage the local garment trade – from 1985 to 1992, 51 out of 72 Zambian clothing firms closed, partly due to foreign competition. “If we sent stuff to where there is already a second-hand clothing market, it could undercut that industry,” says McNeil. There are further complications. “From an environmental point of view, we need to be recycling more,” says Alan Wheeler of the Textile Recycling Association. Sales of new clothing in the UK have risen by 60% in the past decade – we now consume 2m tonnes of clothing and textiles a year. Of that, 1.1m tonnes go straight in the bin; while just 300,000 tonnes are recycled (the rest is probably still sitting in our wardrobes).
Damaged textiles are sorted into grades to make industrial wiping cloths and for use in paper manufacture or material suitable for fiber reclamation and filling products. If textile reprocessors receive wet or soiled clothes however, these may still be disposed of in a landfill, as the washing and drying facilities are not present at sorting units.
Fiber reclamation mills sort textiles according to fiber type and colour. Colour sorting eliminates the need to re-dye the recycled textiles. The textiles are shredded into “shoddy” fibers and blended with other selected fibers, depending on the intended end use of the recycled yarn. The blended mixture is carded to clean and mix the fibers and spun ready for weaving or knitting. The fibers can also be compressed for mattress production. Textiles sent to the flocking industry are shredded to make filling material for car insulation, roofing felts, loudspeaker cones, panel linings and furniture padding. The problem is that much of the donated fabric is synthetic, which is the most difficult to recycle; cotton is also expensive to reuse. The easiest textile to recycle is wool, but the demise of knitwear over the past 15 years has seen the “shoddy” industry suffer.
Clothes recycling is a growing industry in India, with thousands of traders regularly purchasing cast-off clothing in the large-scale outdoor markets of India’s cities. Second-hand clothing is usually mended, washed and ironed before being sold back to poorer Indians at local markets. In UK, the clothes are fed into a ‘mutilating machine’ which cuts strips into the items to make them unwearable, preventing them from being sold illegally in countries like India. Imports of wearable clothing are banned by the Indian authorities in order to protect their clothing manufacturing industries, so Western clothing always arrives in India in this mutilated form.The Indian warehouse workers cut out garment labels and discard even those advertising expensive brands. The shoddy thread is then used to create new items such as blankets or shawls and new labels are attached, with the discarded Western brand names being replaced by names of Indian names.
The resale industry is a huge employment generating industry. For example, a recent study revealed that, in Kenya alone, the second-hand clothing trade directly or indirectly affected an estimated 5 million people in terms of providing jobs or income generation. Few people outside of the textile recycling industry realize that the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles (SMART) is the trade association representing one of the oldest and most established of the recycling industries. More than 1,000 businesses and organizations employing many tens of thousands of workers divert some 2,000,000 tons of textile waste from the solid waste stream. Millions of individuals benefit from the products, operations, and programs created by the recycling of textile waste.
Despite the important social and commercial contribution made by this trade, used clothing prices have been put under pressure during recent years by the worldwide availability of cheap new clothing from countries such as China. These products may be new but their generally poor quality makes them unsuitable for recycling, with the result that an ever-increasing proportion of the used clothing becoming available for collection by the recycling industry will end up in landfill, thereby imposing additional disposal costs on the recycling sector.
Statistics collected by the Council for Textile Recycling indicate that on a national basis this industry recycles approximately 10 pounds per capita or 1,250,000 tons of post-consumer textile waste annually. However, these 10 pounds represent less than 25 percent of the total post-consumer textile waste that is generated. According to the EPA’s 1988 study on the United States Generation of Solid Waste, textiles account for some 3.9 million tons of the solid waste stream. A number of waste composition studies indicate that this unrecovered textile waste accounts for approximately 4 percent of the content of our landfills.
The textile products recycled today are mostly or entirely recyclable, and in most cases they become are 100 percent recycled. Regarding the question of “recyclable” claims, it is agreed that programs should be undertaken by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to prevent marketers from creating a false impression as to the recyclability of a product or container.