SDG12. At least a fifth of textile waste in Europe could be recycled to produce new clothes

The textile industry in Europe faces new challenges related to reducing its environmental footprint by promoting the circular economy and the creation of new sustainable business models from the recycling of textile waste. In addition to the environmental impact this implies, the transformation towards a circular economy offers many opportunities for the sector. Closed-loop production in Europe could generate a market of €6-8 billion in sales with potential annual returns of 20-25% for the recycling industry..and create around 15,000 new jobs by 2030according to new McKinsey & Company report Scaling up textile recycling in Europe turning waste into value » (Scaling Textile Recycling in Europe: Creating Value from Waste) which analyzes and develops scenarios for the evolution of textile waste volumes and collection and recycling rates until 2030.

According to the analysis, each European produces on average more than 15 kilos of textile waste per year and in 2030, this figure could reach 20 kilos (more than 30% more). The largest proportion (85%) of waste is generated in private households and corresponds to clothing and home textile products. Of this volume, less than 1% of post-consumer waste is currently recycled to produce new textile products in the 27 EU countries and Switzerland. More than 65% of this waste is transported directly to landfills or incinerated.

“If the full potential of technical recycling were used and more textiles were collected, between 18 and 26% of textile waste could be reused to make new clothes by 2030,” he says. Ignacio Marcos, Senior Partner and Head of Consumer Sustainability Practice at McKinsey & Company McKinsey & Company. “Large-scale textile recycling would not only reduce CO2 emissions by 4 million tonnes, but also create a profitable industry with some 15,000 jobs in Europe and a potential market of between €6 and €8 billion in sales. “

Higher collection rates for textiles are decisive for more recycling

Today, a third of all post-consumer clothing is collected and recycled, either to be resold as second-hand items or as recycled raw textile products (industrial rags or insulating materials, among others). Less than 1% of this material is recycled to recover or reuse the constituent fibers (cotton, polyester, etc.) for new garments.
The textile recycling rate could reach 50-80% by 2030 and, Consequently, the circular economy to produce textile fibers for new clothes from textile waste could be increased between 18 and 26%. “This so-called fiber-to-fiber recycling, in which textile fibers are transformed into new clothing fibers, is the most sustainable way to generate something new and valuable from waste.“, Explain Sandra Lucia, junior partner at McKinsey & Company in Spain. At the same time, this circular economy offers enormous financial potential, with sales of between 6 and 8 billion euros and potential annual returns of 20 to 25% for the recycling industry.

This evolution towards a circular economy is facilitated by new technologies, such as the mechanical recycling of cotton (already implemented); innovative transformation into viscose fibers and chemical recycling for the reuse of polyester (in the test phase).

Howeverthe collection and preparation of old clothing and textiles through fragmented and small-scale work structures and processes largely manual still faces significant challenges: textile waste must be sorted according to quality criteria, buttons and zippers removed, and fiber compositions clearly identified. Many mixed fiber composite products pose a fiber-to-fiber recycling problem for which there is not yet a solution.

Investment needed to evolve

will be required an industry-wide investment to scale closed-loop recycling technologies and processes that can enable companies to reduce their impact on the environment. The maturity of technology solutions is one of the most relevant factors for scaling closed-loop recycling solutions. In this sense, the expansion of closed-loop recycling could help reduce the environmental impact of fashion at the material level, and as these technologies mature, companies will need to integrate them into product development and adopt processes to large scale.

“To realize the full potential of textile recycling, a total investment of €6-7 billion across the entire value chain is needed by 2030, including collection, sorting and construction of recycling centers. This investment in fiber-to-fiber recycling is valuable not only for sustainability reasons; Valuable new raw materials would be created during recycling, enabling greater textile production in Europe and creating additional value for the industry.” Ignatius Mark.

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