Is your garment recyclable? - Manteco

Is your garment recyclable?

Discover what hinders recycling

The main problem for circular economy in fashion

The importance of recycling textiles is increasingly being recognized, since an estimated 100 billion garments are produced annually. Unfortunately, statistics show that just 1% of garments are being recycled worldwide, with the most of the remainder being burned in landfills or downcycled, representing a huge loss of materials each year. But first, what is garment recycling? It is the process through which post- and pre-consumer garments are recovered and brought back to the fiber state, in order to be re-used for producing new materials. This can be achieved in a mechanical or chemical way, depending on the fibres involved. The necessary steps in this recycling process involve the donation, collection, sorting and processing. It would be good news if this processes were easy and quick, but there are many obstacles that hinder it. What determines the recyclability of a garment?

 

How does composition influence garments' recyclability?

The composition is a key issue and the biggest challenge for garments’ recycling. Most of the fabrics or jerseys that we wear are complex combinations of natural and man-made fibers, which significantly makes it harder to separate them for effective recycling. Plus, some fibre mixes are especially problematic, e.g. those that contain elastane. Why are garments made with blends? Because this way different properties of their component fibres are combined. Sometimes, this practice is used to improve the appearance, comfort, performance and care of garments, yet most of the time it is used to reduce costs, by mixing expensive fibers with cheaper ones. Let’s see some examples:

  • ‘Polycotton’, a blend of polyester and cotton used for many kinds of garments. Compared to pure cotton, it has a higher durability, crease resistance, and lower cost, but still maintains a cotton ‘feel’.
  • Elastane is blended with other fibers to add stretch capacity to a garment.
  • Acrylic is blended with wool fibres to lower costs.
  • More complex blends of three – or more – materials are increasingly used to lower landed costs.

Ultimately, in most cases, tri- or bi-fiber blends make garments’ recycling very hard: the more homogeneous the composition is, the more recyclable the garment will be. In fact, monofiber materials (es: 100% Wool) are easily recyclable and will maintain a higher quality than mixed fibers. The resulting ‘new’ fiber will also be easy to re-use for yarns and fabrics, thus enabling a garment-to-garment recycling.

 

How do trimmings and accessories hinder garments' recyclability?

When garments are eligible to be recycled, they start facing a long and tough journey to be brought back to a new life, and one of the biggest challenge in it is the presence of trimmingss and accessories. Rigid parts (zips and buttons), elastics, liners, linings, care labels, brand labels, embroideries, prints, you name it, are all small elements, but – as they say – the devil is in the details, even more in recycling. Why do trimmings and accessories hinder garment recycling? When garments are collected, they are manually divided by compositions and colors (this phase is called ‘sorting‘), then they must be cleaned from non-recyclable elements. This phase has a big effect on the speed and efficiency of the process, and most of the time it causes also a loss in terms of textile material.

  • The parts that have buttons or zips are cut out
  • The parts that have elastics, such as cuffs, are cut out
  • Brand labels and care labels are detached
  • Linings are unstitched and detached
  • The parts that have liners, embroideries and prints are cut out

A common obstacle is also the use of sewing threads that have different compositions to the garment’s material. Again, this is a detail that has an effect on the speed and efficiency of the process. The less components the garment has, the more recyclable and less wasteful it will be. The solution for winning this big challenge is designing for easy-disassembly: carefully considering how to design a product in a way that it is easy to disassemble after its life, using little or no trimmings, using fewer components, designing with fewer cuts, seams and embroideries.

How could designers increase garments' recyclability?

In the last few years, a new philosophy has risen in the world of fashion: Eco-design, also called ‘sustainable design’ or ‘circular design’. Why? Because 80% of a garment’s environmental impact is determined in the design phase, where the choice of raw materials, constructions and assembly deeply influence the recyclability, and consequently, circular economy in fashion. Nowadays, Eco-design is still not very commonly used, but as the issues on environmental danger increases in awareness, more and more designers and brands are starting to adopt it, by taking into account garments’ lifetime impacts right from the start. In order for garments to be recyclable, many factors must be taken into consideration when designing:

  • Choosing recyclable fabrics or yarns
  • Using mono materials to ensure recyclability and enable an easier process
  • Avoid non-recyclable fibre blends
  • Designing garments for easy disassembly
  • Using sewing threads and labels of the same material of the garment

These are just some of the precautions to create more and more recyclable garments. We must design in a way that garments can have a prolonged life and close the open loop that has had billions of garments incinerated or landfilled.

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