Each day in garment manufactu-ring facilities around the world, including in Bangladesh, millions of metres of fabric are wasted. In other words, fabric which could be used to make clothing ends up on the factory floor to be ultimately tossed out. And what happens after? Incineration? In some cases, yes. Landfill? That’s another likely destination. Recycling? Pretty much always, the answer to this last question is a resounding ‘NO’. And this is a very serious problem at a time when the earth’s precious resources are being used up in deplorably unsustainable ways.
The issue of fabric waste in garment factories is just one small part of a broader global issue with regard to fashion industry waste. The fashion industry itself and its textile supply chains are incredibly wasteful, while recycling rates for used clothing remain stubbornly low. The world’s largest consumer of clothing—the US—has one of the worst records on recycling, sending millions of used garments to be incinerated each year.
This is madness. People in the garment factories of Bangladesh are toiling away to produce clothing which often ends up being sent to the landfill or to be incinerated. Perhaps one day, mankind will look back on this period in time and ask: what were we thinking squandering the earth’s valuable resources? But for now, we are not yet at that stage; in fact, we are nowhere near it.
Major apparel brands often talk about closing the loop in apparel but to what extent does pure upcycling of clothing take place? In fact, it’s only a tiny percentage—less than one percent of the world’s apparel is fully recycled. The rest of it is either disposed or downcycled to be used, for instance, in insulation for the building industry.
Giving used clothing a second life is clearly better than sending it to be incinerated, but the holy grail we all need to be working towards is pure recycling. Thankfully, there are many fantastic options on that front which we should all be getting behind. By “all”, I mean factories, investors, governments and the general public.
Technology in the area of apparel recycling is moving ahead at a rapid pace, and we are seeing many technology start-up businesses currently taking the first important steps, from the development of patents and pilot plants to the commercialisation of their technology.
Worn Again is one great example. This UK-based business uses technology to take used polyester, cotton or a blend of the two, and runs them through a patented chemical recycling process to produce virgin equivalent PET resin and/or cellulosic pulp equivalent to that of dissolving wood pulp. Perhaps, most significantly, the recycled outputs here compare with their virgin equivalents in terms of quality, and they will be price-competitive once commercialised. This last point is key. We all know brands won’t pay extra for sustainability so the critical point about all new developments is that they can create price-competitive outputs.
This is a global issue and we are seeing technological developments all around the world. In Australia, tech business BlockTexx uses a chemical separation process to recover cotton and polyester from used clothing and it is expected to launch its first commercial facility at the end of this year. BlockTexx will use some of the three million tonnes of textile waste currently sent to landfills in Australia each year as feedstock, thereby recovering the building blocks for polyester and cotton for use in a range of industries. The business is also utilising blockchain technology to validate and track the materials it produces—meaning an everyday plastic item could be traced back to its origins as a long-sleeve t-shirt.
In the US, textile innovation company Evrnu is using ground-breaking technology which transforms post-consumer textile waste into new fibres. The company, which has already worked with Levi Strauss, has developed technology which breaks down post-consumer textile waste to the molecular level and then transforms it into high-quality cellulosic fibre for the creation of textiles. Evrnu’s technology can break down cotton and polyester. The company has also developed its own stretch fibre which can be broken down and recovered, unlike elastane which can’t be fully recycled.
Finally, Norwegian business Renewcell is now creating circular dissolving pulp using post-consumer and post-industrial cotton waste without any virgin material added! The business has recently sold its first consignment of 22 tonnes to an Asian viscose manufacturer and this will be used to make virgin-quality viscose staple fibre for retail fashion applications. The price for the pulp is in line with the current market price for high-quality viscose grade pulp.
But these are just four initiatives. There are many more around the world, and there is still an amazing amount of research going on regarding this issue.
Now, think back to the issue of waste fabric on the floors of garment factories in Bangladesh. Why does it have to be this way? Why can’t we take this waste and turn it into something new and precious? And when that something new and precious has become old and worn, why can’t it be put through a special process to be turned into something new again?
Actually, we can do all of this. The technology is there, ready and waiting. All we need is join the dots together. This means the whole industry—from fibre-makers, sorting companies, tech businesses to the fashion industry—needs to work together to ensure that old clothing and unused fabric scraps from factories are diverted from landfills or incineration towards a new life. And this needs to be done again and again in an infinite process.
Mostafiz Uddin is the Managing Director of Denim Expert Limited. He is also the Founder and CEO of Bangladesh Denim Expo and Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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