At H&M’s flagship Paris store, locating garments not boasting of being crafted from “recycled materials” proves to be quite the task.
In the previous year, a staggering 79 percent of the polyester featured in its assortments hailed from recycled sources, with ambitions set to achieve 100 percent recycled polyester content by the forthcoming year.
According to statements provided, the Swedish fast fashion titan underscores the pivotal role of recycled materials in curbing reliance on virgin polyester derived from fossil fuels within the industry.
Urska Trunk from the campaign group Changing Markets pointed out a significant issue: “93 percent of all recycled textiles today originate from plastic bottles, rather than old garments” — essentially still deriving from fossil fuels.
Trunk emphasized a critical distinction: while a plastic bottle can undergo recycling five or six times, a T-shirt crafted from recycled polyester cannot be recycled again.
Textile Exchange, a non-profit organization, confirms that nearly all recycled polyester is sourced from PET (polyethylene terephthalate) derived from plastic bottles.
In Europe, the majority of textile waste faces disposal through either dumping or incineration. Only 22 percent undergoes recycling or reuse, with the bulk being repurposed into insulation, mattress fillings, or cleaning rags.
The European Commission highlighted a stark statistic: “Less than one percent of fabric utilized in clothing production is repurposed into new garments.”
Lenzing, renowned for its wood-based fibers, underscores the complexity of textile recycling, noting that it’s considerably more intricate than recycling materials like glass or paper.
Initially, garments composed of more than two fibers are currently considered non-recyclable.
Sorting clothes by color and removing accessories like zips and buttons are necessary steps for recycling, but they are often expensive and labor-intensive, according to experts. While pilot projects for textile recycling are emerging in Europe, the technology is still in its early stages, as noted by Lisa Panhuber from Greenpeace.
Despite efforts to reuse cotton, its quality significantly diminishes during the recycling process, often requiring it to be blended with other materials. This reintroduces the challenge of dealing with mixed fabrics.
As a result, many fashion brands have turned to recycled plastic as an alternative, much to the frustration of the food industry, which covers the cost of collecting PET bottles for recycling.
The beverage industry expressed strong opposition to what it deemed as misleading environmental claims by the fashion industry regarding the use of recycled materials. In a scathing open letter to the European Parliament, they emphasized that such practices do not constitute true circularity.
According to Lauriane Veillard from Zero Waste Europe (ZWE), recycling polyester presents its own set of challenges. The material often contains impurities and is mixed with other substances like elastane or Lycra, rendering it unsuitable for recycling.
Jean-Baptiste Sultan of the French NGO Carbone 4 echoes these concerns, highlighting the detrimental environmental impact of polyester throughout its lifecycle, from production to recycling. Despite being a major component of textile production, environmental groups advocate for the cessation of polyester use altogether.
So where do all those mountains of unrecyclable polyester and mixed fabrics end up after Western consumers dutifully bring them to recycling bins?
According to figures from the European Environment Agency (EEA) in 2019, nearly half of the textile waste collected in Europe finds its way to African secondhand markets, with Ghana being a particularly contentious destination, or is simply disposed of in open landfills.
An additional 41 percent of the bloc’s textile waste is shipped to Asia, primarily to designated economic zones where it undergoes sorting and processing. However, the fate of these textiles varies, with many being downcycled into industrial rags or filling materials, or re-exported to other Asian countries or Africa for recycling or reuse.
In response to these concerning trends, the EU introduced a new rule in November aimed at ensuring that waste exports are recycled rather than indiscriminately dumped, marking a step towards more sustainable waste management practices.
However, the European Environment Agency (EEA) acknowledged a significant challenge in obtaining consistent data on the quantities and ultimate fate of used textiles and textile waste within Europe.
NGOs have highlighted concerns regarding the destination of Europe’s waste clothes sent to Asia, noting that many end up in “Export Processing Zones.” These zones, according to Paul Roeland of the Clean Clothes Campaign, are known for operating as “lawless” enclaves where even the minimal labor standards of Pakistan and India are not upheld.
Marc Minassian of Pellenc ST, a manufacturer of optical sorting machines used in recycling, emphasized the environmental impact of exporting clothes to countries with low labor costs for sorting, citing concerns about the carbon footprint associated with such practices.
Greenpeace’s consumer expert Panhuber firmly states that “recycling is a myth for clothing,” underscoring a harsh reality.
Amidst these challenges, some brands are exploring new avenues such as vegetable fibers, with German brand Hugo Boss incorporating Pinatex made from pineapple leaves into some of its sneakers.
However, Thomas Ebele of the SloWeAre label raises concerns about the sustainability of these alternatives. He questions the use of thermoplastic polyester or PLA to hold together non-woven fibers, highlighting that while these materials may break down, they are not recyclable.
Ebele warns that “biodegradable does not mean compostable,” emphasizing that some fibers require industrial processes for breakdown.
Despite these efforts, Celeste Grillet of Carbone 4 points out that the fundamental issue lies in the sheer volume of clothes being produced.
For Panhuber and Greenpeace, the solution is straightforward: reduce clothing consumption.
“We have to decrease consumption,” she emphasized, advocating for repair, reuse, and upcycling as essential strategies.