Interview with Recover™: the mechanical recycling of textile fibers
One of the main environmental problems in the fashion sector corresponds to the high amount of waste generated annually.
In fact, it is estimated that more than 15 kilograms of textile waste per capita are generated in Europe. Furthermore, according to the Policy Hub Position Paper “Circularity for Apparel and Footwear on the Revision of the Waste Framework Directive” the amount of textile waste in Europe will grow from the current value of 7-7.5 million tonnes up to 8.5-9.0 million tons in 2030.
The increase in the amount of waste generated by the fashion sector is caused by inadequate end-of-life management of textile waste: less than 1% of the material used for the production of clothing is recycled into new clothes, and most of textile waste (73%) are instead sent to landfills or incinerated, causing serious damage to natural ecosystems.
One of the most useful tools for reducing the amount of waste disposed of in landfills is "textile-to-textile" recycling, which transforms textile waste into new fibers which are then used to create new fabrics and clothing.
What are the technologies and recycling processes that allow you to transform textile waste into new products?
We talked about it with Ana Rodes, Senior Sustainability Manager of Recover™, a company that has innovated the production process of recycled cotton fibres.
Recover™ technology for the mechanical recycling of textile waste
Cikis: The Recover™ process allows you to mechanically recycle pre- and post-consumer textile waste. The process starts from the collection of textile waste up to their recycling and the production of new fibers, fabrics and clothes. Let's start with the textile waste collection phase, how does the procurement of textile waste work? Have you established partnerships with other companies?
A: Recover™ transforms textile waste into high quality recycled cotton fibers and fiber blends.
We work with our strategic partners to integrate our process into the supply chain by providing an end-to-end closed-loop solution.
Recover™ buys textile waste of post-industrial and pre- and post-consumer origin already sorted by composition and colour. For this reason, various partnership agreements have been entered into with textile sorting companies.
Cikis: Once the textile waste has been collected, the recycling operations begin. Your technology allows you to transform textile waste into recycled cotton fibers and subsequently into yarns, fabrics and garments. Can you describe to us how the recycling process works? What is the innovation in your process compared to other mechanical recycling companies? We remind you that the typical mechanical recycling process has great environmental benefits but leads to shorter cotton fibers and therefore with lower quality performance.
A: Recover™ is a mechanical textile recycler. Our revolutionary process allows us to guarantee the longest fiber at the lowest environmental cost.
Firstly, during the “cut & extract” phase, large textile waste is cut into smaller ones and all non-textile items are automatically removed.
Subsequently, the shredding stage begins and the small pieces of textile waste are uniquely processed inside the shredding machine. The machine optimization formula is proprietary and used exclusively by Recover™.
Finally, with the packaging, the Recover™ fiber is ready to be integrated into our partners' supply chains.
Cikis: Can you explain to us the difference between RCotton and RCottonBlend? In particular, with RCottonBlend you combine recycled cotton with organic cotton / recycled polyester which already has some specific colors and with this mix you are able to reach blends that do not need to be dyed again. The process is done with “minimal solvents and water” - can you elaborate a bit on this sentence? Also, is there a difference between RCottonBlend and RCotton in terms of percentage of recycled content in the final garment?
A: Recover™ offers two families of recycled fiber products: RCotton and RColorBlend.
RCotton is a family of Recover™ fiber products made from unblended recycled cotton fiber suitable for overdyeing (RPure, RMix, RDenim).
RColorblend is a family of Recover™ fiber products in which Recover™ recycled cotton fibers are blended with fibers from other carriers that have been low-impact dyed to create new fibers, in a full range of colors at the lowest environmental cost (RBlue , Rterra). These products have undergone our proprietary ColorBlend process to achieve the perfect combination of performance and color-matching accuracy.
Transitioning to organic or recycled cotton, such as Recover™ Cotton Fiber is a step that can be taken to reduce water consumption in the industry.
Using textile waste as a raw material, the amount of water required to produce our recycled cotton fiber is significantly lower than other traditional methods, as 1 kg of Recover™ saves up to 14740 liters of water. Furthermore, the Recover™ process does not generate waste water thus avoiding the release of microfibers into the environment.
Applying low-impact dyeing methods can help further reduce the water footprint and pollution of the industry.
The chemicals used in the production processes of fibers and fabrics, such as dyeing or finishing treatments, represent a total of approximately 43 million tons of non-renewable resources.
Recover™ dye-free recycled fiber is blended with fibers from other substrates (usually rPET) that have been low-impact dyed to create new RColorBlend fibers. RColorBlend fibers are delivered ready to be spun, with no need for further blending or dyeing.
Cikis: Can you also work with mixed fabrics? On this aspect, is there any innovation arriving on an industrial scale that can support the market with recycling blends?
A: Recover™ can recycle cotton/polyester blends. However, a few considerations need to be addressed to reduce any limitation in the applicability of recycled fibers in finished yarns and fabrics. Some of these considerations could be:
- The % of polyester in recyclable materials
- The polyester content required on the yarn for spinning
- The required % of recycled materials in the yarn
Recycled fibers with elastane content will not have spinning problems in heavy counts, but problems can occur in fine counts. To achieve optimal recyclability of materials and products, elastane should be avoided.
Cikis: The LCA methodology makes it possible to evaluate the potential environmental impacts of a product, process or service throughout its entire life cycle. In this regard, Recover™ conducted a study to evaluate the environmental impacts of products using the LCA methodology. Did the study consider only the production phase (cradle to gate) or the entire product life cycle (cradle to cradle)? Why is it important to conduct an LCA analysis?
A: Our key priority is to improve the sustainability performance, both environmental and social, of our products, processes and general facility operations as much as possible, and have full traceability and transparency of our product and supply chains.
This means, for example, that Recover™ continuously tracks environmental impacts at the product, process and company level through LCA tools and other indicators in our Environmental and Social Management System (ESMS).
Using Recover™ recycled cotton helps reduce GHG emissions at the raw material value chain level, which is part of Scope 3 emissions for brands and retailers.
We use a third-party LCA analysis to evaluate the environmental impact of Recover™ fibers throughout their life cycle. It allows us to report/be transparent about our environmental performance globally, but also provides us with information about the environmental performance of all our products and facilities worldwide.
The mechanical recycling of textile waste: challenges and prospects
Cikis: We spoke about benefits, now let’s speak about challenges. Through mechanical recycling, the fiber can lose quality and must therefore be mixed with other virgin fibers (especially in the case of cotton). Is this the case also for Recover? What is the maximum percentage of recycled cotton we can expect in final garments? And can your final garments be recycled again / does it depend on the type of product (RBlue / REarth etc)?
A: Our Rcotton fiber is mixed with conventional/organic cotton, and the percentages of Recover™ fiber vary and depend on the fabric we want to obtain.
For example, it depends on the yarn: if it is thin or thick, the percentages of Recover™ fiber can be increased. In ColorBlend it is possible to obtain yarns made with 100% recycled fibers (in blends that include recycled polyester).
Recover™ works with brands and supply chain partners to apply circular design principles to re-produce recyclable garments.
Cikis: Is there a way to overcome the challenge of limited recyclability and the need to mix recycled fiber with virgin fiber?
A: Both mechanical and chemical recycling are highlighted as highly relevant technologies to enable industry to become less reliant on virgin materials.
These two technologies should be combined as they are complementary and can work in synergy to achieve a circular fashion system. Claiming that chemistry replaces mechanics therefore seems not only improbable, but also unintelligent. Mechanical recycling is a versatile, proven and industrially available technology, while most chemical recycling technologies are still working to establish commercial scale.
The big advantage of mechanical recycling of cotton is its impact. It does not use water or chemicals and uses small quantities of energy resources.
So, the perfect combination could work like this: mechanical technology can keep the cotton in the system as long as possible for several recycling cycles and, when the cotton fibers have become too degraded, it regenerates them through recycling chemical in man-made cellulosic fibers which can be reused.
Cikis: The change from conventional cotton to preferred cotton has an impact on the price. What is the additional cost a company has to consider when switching to recycled cotton fabrics? Will it be like this in the future too?
A: Recover™ offers innovative and cost-effective recycled fiber and circular solutions at scale.
However, high-value recyclers like us have very different needs for sorting (composition, colour, exclusion of wax coated garments, lurex yarns, etc.) and pre-processing (removal of rubber prints, buttons/zippers etc.) of post-consumer textiles.
To do this at scale cost-effectively requires new technologies and processes. Some of the challenges of manual preprocessing steps can be addressed by applying circular design, especially design for recyclability strategies.
Cikis: The offer of recycled fabrics on the market is very limited. For example, recycled cotton had a 0.96 % share of global cotton production in 2020. What is the cause of this?
A: Achieving circularity in the textile sector is an increasingly important topic on the sector agenda. However, at present, this industry is still largely dominated by a linear business model.
Currently, only ±25% of all globally discarded tissue is collected separately. Of this percentage, half is destined for reuse and the other half, the so-called non-reusables, is mostly destined for downcycling. Less than 1 percent of discarded clothing is recycled into new, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
As a high-value textile-to-fabric recycler, Recover™ has a key role to play in the transition to a circular fashion system. However, while this is very encouraging, one of our biggest challenges is being able to secure large volumes of raw materials suitable for the process.
For example, with regards to post-consumer textile waste, the business models of existing textile sorters/collectors are specific for sorting to the reuse and downcycling markets.
However, high-value recyclers have very different needs for sorting (composition, colour, exclusion of waxed garments, lurex yarns, etc.) and pre-processing (removal of rubber prints, tags, buttons/zippers, etc. .) of post-consumer textile waste. To do this on a large scale in a cost-effective way requires new technologies and processes.
Cikis: In your opinion, based on your experience, will the recycled fabrics market grow further in the future?
A: The latest report released by McKinsey indicates that fiber-to-fibre recycling could increase 18% to 26% of gross textile waste in 2030. To seize this opportunity, it is imperative to start expanding the infrastructure needed for collection, sorting and closed-loop recycling of textile waste.
This further amplifies the ambitious goals of the ReHubs initiative which aims to solve the European textile waste problem by turning “waste” into a resource and promoting the circular textile business model on a large scale.
As a member of the company board, Recover™ has supported and contributed to the work of ReHubs for the past 1.5 year.
One of the main environmental criticalities of the fashion sector corresponds to the high quantity of textile waste produced annually and the poor valorisation of waste which, in most cases, is sent to landfills or subjected to incineration procedures.
In order to limit these problems, it is essential to increase the share of textile waste recycled into new fibres.
Through the technological innovation proposed by Recover™ it is possible to mechanically recycle textile waste into new fibers thus contributing to the transition of the fashion sector towards greater circularity and sustainability.
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