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More and more it is recognized that efficient fiber-sorting technology is the key to unlocking the value of post-consumer textiles. As Circle Economy and partners make progress with the new FIBERSORT technology, we get a step closer to the tipping point for a closed loop textiles industry.

Did you know that the textiles industry is the second most polluting industry in the  world? And that fashion is the second largest consumer and polluter of water?

With a growing population demanding ever more resources like food, clothing and energy and an increasingly unstable climate driving downward pressure on productivity, it is apparent that the current linear way of working is economically unstable and ecologically unsustainable. The industry needs to find a new way of working.

 

Used textiles are the resources of the future

A different approach is to work towards a circular resource model for textiles. This starts with collecting used textiles instead of throwing them away. Globally, the textile collection rates are around 20%, in some EU countries this figure is higher but generally never exceeds 40%. However it does not stop at collection. You also need ways to recover these products and materials in a circular way. Currently we do not have circular solutions for all the textiles, which are collected.

“Before increasing collection rates, it is important to develop the technologies and create business models and infrastructure that support the highest value reuse and recycling of textiles,” Helene Smits (Project manager of the Textiles Sorting Project).

That is why almost one year ago, Wieland Textiles, Valvan Baling Systems, Metrohm Applikon, Worn Again, Faritex, Salvation Army ReShare and Circle Economy,  joined their forces in the Textile Sorting Project. The goal of the Textile Sorting Project is to bring to the market a commercially viable technology for sorting post-consumer textile materials to enable high value recycling. With the Textiles Sorting Project, a new way of fiber sorting is presented via the FIBERSORT machine.

 

The FIBERSORT as key enabling technology for High Value Recycling

The FIBERSORT sorting technology can detect the fiber composition of post-consumer recyclable textile materials (through optical detection technology) and uses this to sort clothes based on the material it is made of (e.g. cotton, polyester, wool). This is a very necessary step before the recycling process because when clothes are collected, all different materials are mixed together. Many of the recyclers we talk to confirm that for them to be able to produce high quality recycled yarns from post-consumer textiles, they need to have optimal control of input, meaning they need to know the fiber composition of the materials that they recycle.

If successfully commercialised, the FIBERSORT machine could change the textile recycling landscape, as efficient fiber sorting technology is key to unlocking the value of post-consumer textiles.

 

An update of results after one year

Now, one year later some key insights can be shared. In the past year the project partners have worked on three main tracks and gained the following key insights:

 

Creating insight into the volumes & fiber composition of post-consumer textiles.

Some results include that approximately 2/3 of recyclable post-consumer textiles are pure materials; of these pure materials cotton is by far the largest fraction; and the most common blended materials are a mix of cotton and polyester fibers.

Exploring the textile recycling market to identify recyclers that can play a role in closing the loop for post-consumer textiles (textile to textile recycling capabilities).

From the market research it became clear that the market is still very much in development. Not many players are currently active in textile to textile recycling. The mechanical process is relatively well-established for certain fibers but is still operating on a small scale and only few players are meeting quality requirements of the textile manufacturing industry (e.g. Ferre with their Recover Upcycled Textile System are an example of one such company, whose quality and price are virgin-competitive). An exciting development is that several chemical recycling technologies are expected to enter the market in the next few years. Many of these players (amongst them, Worn Again) are very pro-active and plan to operate on an industrial scale.

Optimizing the FIBERSORT technology and process in order to make it fit for commercial use.

In order to commercialise, the FIBERSORT technology needs to be able to fiber-sort large quantities of feedstock with accuracy. The FIBERSORT needs to process large volumes to be able to deal with the large amounts of low-grade, non-rewearable textiles that are collected (±500KT per year for UK, NL, Germany, Belgium and France) and to be able to provide high volumes of sorted output for the upcoming industrial chemical recycling plants. Technology partners in the project have been working on optimizing the detection technology and engineering aspects of the machine during the project.

 

Looking forward…

In the coming year the project will have a continued focus on optimizing the technology and process for commercial use, with the ultimate aim to demonstrate and validate the technology and business model for fiber-sorting of low-grade non-rewearables in a first pilot plant. If successfully commercialised, the FIBERSORT machine could change the textile recycling landscape, as efficient fiber-sorting technology is the key to unlocking the value of post-consumer textiles and creating a tipping point for a closed loop textiles industry.

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