Is textile recycling a future business standard?

A common material to end up in landfills, despite its recycling potential, is textiles. In fact, fewer than six percent of large cities in the United States accept discarded textiles in curbside recycling bins. It’s not a service that is widely available to the public, despite a pressing need to keep textiles out of landfills.  

For businesses that deal with textiles, recycling these materials might become a consumer expectation sooner rather than later, as the push for sustainability impacts shoppers’ decisions.  

How are textiles recycled? 

Textile recycling typically follows these steps: 

  1. Collection, where used textiles are gathered from various sources, either via drop-off points, curbside pickups, or dedicated recycling centers. 
  2. Sorting, where the collected textiles are sorted based on their material composition, condition, and potential for reuse. Items in good condition may be sorted for resale, while damaged or unusable textiles are set aside for recycling. 
  3. Cleaning, where the textiles suitable for reuse are washed or dry-cleaned to remove dirt, stains, and odors.  
  4. Reuse and resale, where the cleaned textiles are sold for reuse in secondhand stores, consignment shops, online platforms, or exported to other countries where there is a demand for used clothing. 
  5. Recycling, where the textiles not suitable for reuse are processed for recycling. 
  6. Manufacturing, where the recycled fibers or materials are transformed into new textile products, such as clothing, home furnishings, insulation, automotive textiles, or industrial materials. 

There are three main methods of recycling: 

  • Mechanical recycling, common for cotton, wool, and synthetic fibers, where textiles are shredded or torn into fibers and then spun into new yarns or fabrics. 
  • Chemical recycling, where chemical processes are used to break down textiles into their basic components, such as fibers or polymers, which can then be used to produce new textiles, plastics, or other materials. 
  • Fiber regeneration, a special technology that can regenerate fibers from old textiles. 

Companies are beginning to invest in textile recycling.  

As sustainability efforts become more important for the planet, and for brand reputation, more and more companies across the textiles industry are investing in recycling programs.  

Most recently, athleisure wear brand Lululemon invested in Australian recycling company Samsara Eco. According to PYMNTS, Lululemon and Samsara Eco “will collaborate to make recycled nylon and polyester from the apparel waste generated while producing Lululemon’s athletic apparel and use it to create brand-new apparel.” 

Other examples include: 

  • Swiss sportswear brand On has a subscription program where customers get an endless supply of running shoes, provided they return worn-out pairs to be recycled. 
  • H&M offers a program called ‘Close the Loop’ which allows customers to bring clothing to any in-store recycling bin and receive a coupon to use toward their next purchase. 
  • Zara-owner, Inditex, has a sustainability initiative called ‘Zara Preowned’ which lets customers prolong the life of their clothing by either having it repaired, reselling it, or donating it. 

With more big names adopting these kinds of incentives, it seems reasonable to assume that textile recycling is going to continue to be at the forefront of the apparel industry.  

Textile waste is on the rise.  

The push for more textile recycling options is incredibly timely, as textile waste rates are only rising.  

In the United States alone, textile waste has increased by 80% over the past 20 years and is the country’s fastest-growing waste stream. That amounts to over 30 billion pounds of textile waste being burned and dumped every year. 

In conclusion… 

Textile waste is a growing problem, and consumers don’t always have easy access to recycling solutions. Some apparel brands are leading the charge to offer textile solutions to their customers, as a part of a rising cultural shift towards sustainability. As green initiatives become more and more present in shoppers’ minds, these recycling incentives may become a standard expectation.