In Finland, there is a discussion about what to do with textiles and clothing that are no longer used. EU will also take up the issue when it starts reassessing waste legislation in the course of next year, and the focus will probably be on textile waste again.
But why do we talk about waste; could clothes or even material be used again?
The legislator is interested in setting up an efficient collection system. Before collection there should, however, be an understanding of how to use textile fibre waste sustainably and profitably, too, as it is profitability that makes recycling a sustainable activity.
Consumers buying clothes are probably interested in the issue, as they would pay for the costs of separate collection in the prices of clothing. Clothes buyers are very price sensitive and not willing to pay very much for recycling.
Utilisation of textile waste and its raw material, fibres, is an issue which presents many problems. Reusability of different textile fibres varies considerably and mixtures are even more problematic. It has been said that the recycling of cotton and polyester are as close each other as the recycling of frying-pans and soda bottles.
After just over two years, textile waste can no longer be taken to landfills. Is there any other use for textile waste but incineration to energy with other waste? Recovery of energy through incineration is tempting because when incinerated, a kilo of clothing generates more energy than a kilo of wood!
Some companies make profitable business with textile and fibre waste. However, in order to make separate textile waste collection profitable or even sensible, we should be able to use nearly all of such waste.
Methods for using textile waste are being constantly developed. Melt spinning of used synthetic fibres presents some problems as does the mechanical recyclability of natural fibres. On a large scale, the quality and price of recycled textile fibre are unrealistic in most cases and their environmental impact is greater than that of new fibres. In many cases, the recycling and recovery of fibres is impossible.
The use of textile waste must be based on the most cost-efficient method and absolutely be market-based as a whole. Why make consumers pay for something that would only harm the environment? Why pile up a growing mountain of textile waste that could not be made use of?
It is expected that the increasing price of oil, the growth in demand for clothing in Asia and higher prices of fibre will increase the demand for textile waste as raw material. In the meantime, clothes first warm people wearing them and can later be incinerated with mixed waste to generate heat.
The writer Veli-Matti Kankaanpää is CEO for Textile and Fashion Suppliers and Retailers Finland.