The idea is nothing new – strictly speaking it is as old as the world itself. This is because there is no waste in nature – everything is reused in a never-ending cycle. Why do we not try to use this concept in our economy?
The German chemist Prof. Dr. Michael Braungart and the American architect William McDonough developed the so-called Cradle-to-Cradle (C2C) concept in the nineties to ensure the recyclability of products. It can be used in all industry sectors, and of course in the clothing industry too. C2C differentiates between biological and technical cycles: either the raw materials can be decomposed by micro-organisms as a biological nutrient and make it back into the ground – they are therefore biologically degradable. Or they are used again and again in the technical cycle to create new products – therefore they are recycled.
What fundamentally applies: The longer a piece of clothing is in use the better it is for the environment. But what do we do when it arrives at the end of its life cycle? And what happens with the fabric remnants from production? The textiles should ideally be recycled. In recent years the question has been increasingly asked of how we can stop the endless downcycling process?
The recycling of polyester is already the most advanced. From pure PET we can now gain polyester of the same value without any loss of quality. However, it is more difficult with natural fibers such as cotton. This can only be recycled with a loss of quality and then can only be spun with newer cotton fibers which are more stable. At the moment the quota for a piece of clothing is at 30 percent recycled cotton and 70 percent new cotton. Fortunately there are always new innovations in this area so there are already the first suppliers of recycled wool and recycled down.
It gets really difficult when clothing is made from different materials. Separating these mixtures from one another into their own material components is not possible yet. And there is one more problem with recycling: We need to collect the used items of clothing and feed them to their respective suitable uses.
In Germany that already works really well. More than a million tons of old clothing ended up in the collection boxes there in 2016. According to the umbrella association FairWertung e.V. that is approximately 80 percent of all old clothes. More than half of these old clothes will no longer be used as clothing, rather they will be processed into cleaning cloths etc. Around 10 percent of all old clothing cannot be reprocessed and ends up in the incinerator or in the dump. In the USA, on the other hand, around 84 percent of old clothes end up in the garbage, or around 11 million tons per year. Many brands such as Patagonia, The North Face and also H&M are therefore starting their own collection campaigns.
While the theme of recycling has been occupying the textile industry for years and more and more recycled materials are finding their use in products (at Nike 71 percent of shoes should already contain recycled materials), biological degradability and compostability of textiles are still at the start of their development. Oil-based polyester needs up to 400 years until it has broken down to dangerous micro-plastic, and then it will do damage primarily to the sea.
A lot of research work is now going into the development of biologically based synthetic fibers which can be obtained thanks to renewable raw materials. They should replace oil-based synthetics and help to solve the waste problem in the end.
Biologically created artificial fibers are often biologically degradable – if not all – and can be disposed of without issues. In this way, even more blended fabrics from natural fibers and synthetic fibers can be discarded care free in the future. But there is also a problem with this: There are different composting processes and not all of them are equally suitable. Above all, “biologically degradable” does not mean that the fibers would be harmless in the sea as micro-plastic. The labelling obligation on textiles is still not developed to such an extent that you can recognize without a doubt how the product can best be disposed of.
Despite this, the first companies are already thinking towards a recycling economy. The pioneers include Puma that brought its (unfortunately only) “Puma InCycle” collection to the market in 2013. It was made up of t-shirts, sweat suits, sneakers and rucksacks and was developed in collaboration with the Hamburg Institute EPEA (Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency), that was founded by the C2C creator Michael Braungart.
Further companies want to follow this year and are announcing ambitious plans. In June, C&A wants to launch its first C2C t-shirt for example. The shirt from 100 percent organic cotton should be produced 500,000 times and be placed on the market for between 7 and 9 euros.
Reebok is concentrating on renewable raw materials and reported in April that it wants to manufacture sustainable plant-based gym shoes which are based on bio-cotton and corn and are therefore compostable. “Finally it is our goal to create a wide range of eco-friendly shoes which can be composted after use”, according to Reebok Future Head Bill McInnis. “We will then use this compost as part of the ground to let the materials for the next footwear range grow. We want to take into account the whole cycle on the principle of creating things from dust which will later decay back into dust.