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

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Report ‘Scaling textile recycling in Europeturning waste into value, by McKinsey & Company

Intercompany Drafting07/18/2022

The textile industry in Europe faces new challenges related to the reduction of its environmental footprint through the promotion of the circular economy and the creation of new sustainable business models from the recycling of textile waste. In addition to the environmental impact that this entails, the transformation towards a circular economy offers numerous opportunities for the sector. Closed-loop production in Europe could generate a market of between 6 and 8 billion euros in sales with potential annual returns of 20 to 25% for the recycling industry, and create around 15,000 new jobs by 2030, according to the new report. McKinsey & Company report ‘Scaling textile recycling in Europeturning waste into value’ which analyzes and develops scenarios for the development of textile waste volumes and collection rates and recycling until 2030.

Each year around 7.5 million tonnes of textile waste are generated in Europe.

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 the waste is produced 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 within 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 for the manufacture of new clothing by 2030, says Ignacio Marcos, senior partner and expert in the area. of sustainability in consumption of McKinsey & Company. The scaled-up recycling of textiles would not only reduce CO2 emissions by 4 million tons, but would also create a profitable industry with some 15,000 jobs in Europe and a potential market of between 6 and 8 billion euros in sales, he explains.

Higher textile collection rates are decisive for increased recycling

Today, a third of all post-consumer clothing is collected and recycled, either for sale as second-hand items or as raw recycled textile products (industrial rags or insulating materials, among other uses). Less than 1% of this material is recycled to recover or reuse the component fibers (cotton, polyester, etc.) for new garments.

The textile recycling rate could increase to 50-80% by 2030 and consequently the circular economy to produce textile fibers for new clothing items from textile waste could be scaled to 18-26%. This so-called fiber-to-fiber recycling, in which textile fibers are transformed into new fibers for clothing, is the most sustainable way to generate something new and valuable from waste, explains Sandra Luca, a junior partner at McKinsey & Company. in Spain. In parallel, this circular economy offers enormous financial potential, with sales 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 established); innovative transformation into viscose fibers and chemical recycling for the reuse of polyester (in the testing stage).

However, the collection and preparation of old clothing and textiles through small-scale, fragmented structures and largely manual work processes remains fraught with significant challenges: textile waste must be sorted using quality criteria, buttons and zippers removed, and fiber compositions clearly identified. Many mixed fiber composite products pose a problem for fiber-to-fiber recycling for which no solution yet exists.

Investment needed to scale

Industry-wide investment will be required to scale closed-loop recycling technologies and processes that can enable companies to reduce their impact on the environment. The maturity of technological solutions is one of the most relevant factors for scaling up 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 incorporate them into product development and adopt large-scale processes.

To leverage the full potential of textile recycling, a total investment of €6-7 billion across the value chain is required by 2030, including collection, sorting and construction of recycling centres. This investment in fiber-to-fiber recycling is valuable not only for sustainability reasons; New and valuable raw materials would be created during recycling, which would allow greater textile production in Europe and create additional value for the industry, points out Ignacio Marcos.

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