Textile recycling as a contribution to circular economy and production waste enhancement

The environmental impact of the textile production chain could be ascribable to different stages of the system itself. For instance, synthetic fibre production deeply affects the environment because of the employment of nonrenewable resources as well as in natural fibre production (e.g. Cotton) big quantities of water and pesticides are used.

Furthermore, waste amounts represent a remarkable issue whether they are produced during production and processing of textile materials, such as production waste and excesses (industrial or pre-consumption), or at the end-of-life of products, once it had been sold and used (post-consumer materials).

In this sense, a particular attention have to be given to recycling processes for both products and waste, aiming at reintroducing them in a new industrial process, through new manufacturing ways, and so, starting a new life-cycle.

As an example, Assosistema stated that recycling secondhand clothes could:

– cut textile environmental impact on global warming down by 53%;

– reduce pollution caused by the textile industry by 45%;

– cut water eutrophication down (caused by nitrate and phosphate excess in water flows) by 95%.

However, there are different approaches to be used and different ways to identify suitable technologies that could lead product manufacturing towards a remarkable reduction of production costs, while considering recyclable materials as a real and efficient alternative. Among them, there are technologies for production waste recovery.

Production waste recycling

In Italy, tons of wasted textile fibres could be allocated for other applications, reducing the impact of Textiles & Clothing. Textile recycling could supply low-cost raw materials with low environmental impact for many application fields, such as automotive, furnishing, sailing or insulating panel production.

According to data released by Assosistema (2013), each year in Italy, 124.300 tons of textile waste from private households are produced, but only a small share of them is recovered at their end-of-life.

As far as textile waste recycling is concerned, better results had been obtained in other countries, in which Switzerland stands out, recycling about half of textile waste each year throughout the country.

Opportunities for raw materials with low environmental impact

 Since the quality of materials considered as wastes is higher than expected, it could be a good practice to recover them through a real recycling plan, both mechanical and chemical. Furthermore, those recovering processes are often more sustainable than raw materials manufacturing.

However, in order to reach a good rationalization level, the efficiency of those processes should be improved as well as the quality of recycled materials. For instance, in order to create systems that could make textile recycling easier, the (automatic) phase of separation of post-consumer materials should be enhanced as well as advanced technologies should be developed for dyestuffs and finishing extraction and blended fibre separation in fabrics avoiding fibre damages that could represent a severe problem in terms of quality.

Recycling technologies

For that, in the last few years, many studies had been carried out to improve textile recycling of industrial and post-consumer wastes.

As far as chemical recycling is concerned, cotton has been deeply studied and today many pilot schemes had been put in action in order to evaluate technologies and results on the market.

On the contrary, technologies for PET and PA 6 recycling are already consolidated, even if further studies could offer the chance to enhance the entire process. In chemical recycling, for process efficiency, fibre chemical composition and dyestuff/finishing nature are really important. However, the employment of enzymes, could be a further factor for process improvement, while treatments with ionic liquids for fibre and finishing separation are being carried out.

As far as mechanical recycling is concerned, studies had been focused on the process itself, according to fabric structures (plain fabrics, knitted fabrics) in order to protect the quality of recycled fibres. In the future, it will be necessary to develop a more systematic spinning process in order to guarantee a good production pace and a high quality level obtained from recycled fibres.

In conclusion, it could be useful to remember the most famous recycling example in the textile sector, i.e. PET bottles. After that polluting substances had been selected and taken, PET can be transformed in continuous filaments for clothing application (fleece, paddings, composite materials)

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