fibre2fibre recycling - turning the UK’s unwanted clothes into the latest fashion

5 February 2019

A new report published today by sustainability experts WRAP is the first to examine the economic factors influencing fibre2fibre recycling and assess how it may help clothe the UK in the future. Using data from established and emerging business and academic trials, WRAP’s report (Fibre to fibre recycling: An economic & financial sustainability assessment) is the first detailed appraisal of the financial viability of using post-consumer clothing and textiles as feedstock for chemical and mechanical fibre2fibre recycling operations. 

The focus on end-of-life clothing is an attempt to unlock alternative sources to virgin fibres for manufacturing clothes and supports WRAP’s work to reduce the environmental impact of clothing under the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan 2020. Peter Maddox, WRAP director explains, “We know that only housing, transport and food have greater environmental impacts than clothing, and with rising global demand we urgently need to secure new sources of materials and find new markets for used clothing. Fibre2fibre recycling offers a potential solution - but one that has not been properly investigated.  

“Our report is the first to explain the economics of fibre2fibre recycling and will help investors, business-developers and the recycling sector navigate this relatively young, uncharted field. New processes and entrants onto the market should be monitored to inform the business case for future investment, but we already see potential for post-consumer textiles to become part of the UK’s fashion scene.” 

The research was undertaken ahead of the anticipated global shortfall in virgin textiles. This predicts limitations in future cotton supplies, the UK’s most used fibre, with projections suggesting a five-million-tonnes global cotton deficit by 2020. 

WRAP’s study models the finances for both chemical and mechanical fibre2fibre recycling processes for recovering polycotton and cotton respectively. It highlights the pressure points, and potential returns, and outlines the barriers to developing post-consumer fibre2fibre recycling; with recommendations for overcoming these.

In terms of fibres providing the greatest potential for fibre2fibre recycling, cotton and polyester (found in mono-fibre fabrics and polycotton blends) are the leading materials. These are most commonly used in clothing and household textiles, with as much as three-quarters of post-consumer recycling grades containing polycotton blends.

Further improvements in consumer messaging, and collection infrastructure, could positively influence the proportion of discarded clothing available for recycling. Consumer behaviour also affects the quality of garments received, with excessive washing and tumble drying at high temperature causing damage to clothing and effecting the quality of the fibres recovered in mechanical reprocessing. 

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