CIRFS Position Paper on circular economy
In the framework of the European Commission’s a) Closing the loop – An EU action plan for the Circular Economy, b) Roadmap for a Strategy on Plastics in a Circular Economy, and c) Textile Recycling, the man-made fibres industry would like to insist that it is committed to contributing to developing a sustainable, low carbon, resource efficient economy.
In this sense, every possible effort will be made to maintain the value of products, materials and resources in the economy while minimizing the generation of waste as far as possible. In the production of man-made fibres, in addition to maintaining the highest efficiency by utmost care in reducing waste, every waste produced is recycled as far as possible to save on resources.
When it comes to using secondary raw materials in man-made fibres e.g. ca. 70% of waste PET bottles in Europe are converted into polyester staple fibres, waste from cotton fibre processes can be converted into viscose fibres, or waste fishing nets, waste carpets or other materials into polyamide textile fibres and technical textile fibres into engineering materials. In order to support these and other processes industry is looking to having clear end-of-waste criteria and proper/functioning collection schemes.
Indeed, too much of pure PET feedstock-based packaging material is disposed of in mixed waste streams, and thereby impossible to be automatically sorted out in a suitable quality, given the current technology. For finished products made from recycled feedstock, transparency of the recycling pathway should therefore be defined.
In addition the export of valuable and reusable waste materials such as collected PET bottles to non-EU countries, especially to Asia should be restricted to avoid good quality material from leaving the EU and re-entering the EU again in the form of fibres or textiles produced in third countries with a much less favourable ecological footprint.
As for textiles/clothing recycling, proper technologies are needed for the separation of individual fibres from mixed fibre fabrics of clothing and other textiles, knowing also that the ecological footprint (energy and water included) must be acceptable and the process needs to make sense economically speaking, in order to minimize the impact for the consumer and for the producer to whom a large part of the responsibility is shifted. European support for R&D may be useful.
Once these are obtained, returned fibres from textiles can be recycled with existing technologies either by direct reuse or as a secondary material fed into the man-made fibre production process or into other sectors’ (e.g. engineering or other plastics) production processes where it can deploy the best features and and gain the highest value added. A second life for fibres can also be a new smart life in plastics.
However, the issue of imported textiles needs to be resolved to determine who owns the end- of-life material and who processes it as the secondary material. Moreover, it is important to clarify and align REACH when handling chemicals in waste. Standardization and harmonization are needed.
As a matter of fact, most textiles seem not to be designed for recycling. Very often complex material blends are used, which are difficult to separate at the end of the life of the product. Examples may refer to the actual garment composition (e.g. 76% Cotton, 19% Polyester, 3% Polyamide, 2% Elastane) but also to the general use of synthetic materials in sewing threads, labels, … and the use of hard to recycle/remove dyes and other textile auxiliaries. Promoting a “design for recycling” approach at that level would clearly help to broaden the basis of textiles that could actually be recycled.
Finally, when it comes to plastics leaking into the environment (microplastics coming from synthetic fibres in marine environments), according to recent tests, the degradation of fibres into microplastics depends on many factors related to the type of product and production process, the maintanance cycle and end-of- life disposal.The most relevant elements relate to the type of fibre, fibre and textile processing, washing conditions such as temperature, use of detergents and softeners, extract water filtration and water handling (purıfication and recycling) processes - as well as to inappropriate human behaviour when disposing of end-of-life goods. The issue needs be further studied, proper analytical test methods have to be defined to measure the effective volume of microplastics shed into the marine environment as a consequence of production, use and disposal of man made fibres based textiles.