Textile industry is among the most essential consumer goods industry. We all need garments and other textile products such as footwear and bags etc. However, textile industry is also accused of being one of the most polluting industry. Not only production but consumption of textiles also produce waste. To counter the problem, textile industry has taken many measures for reducing its negative contribution towards environment. One of such measures is textile recycling- the reuse as well as reproduction of fibers from textile waste.
Sources of Textile Waste
Majority of textile waste comes from household sources. Average lifetime of any clothing is deemed to be for about 3 years, after which, they are thrown away as old clothes. Sometimes even ‘not so worn garments’ are also discarded as they become unfashionable, or undesirable. These are post-consumer waste that goes to jumble sales and charitable organizations. Most recovered household textiles coming to these organizations, are sold or donated. The remaining ones go to either a textile recovery facility or the landfill.
Textile waste also arise during yarns and fabric manufacturing, apparel-making processes and from the retail industry. They are the post-industrial waste. Apart from these textile wastes other wastes such as PET bottles etc. are also used for recycling polyester fiber.
Why Textile Recycling!
Textile recycling is for both, environmental and economic benefits. It avoids many polluting and energy intensive processes that are used to make textiles from fresh materials.
- The requirement of landfill space is reduced. Textiles lead to many problems in landfill. Synthetic fibers don’t decompose. Woolen garments do decompose but produce methane, which contributes to global warming.
- Pressure on fresh resources too is reduced.
- Leads to balance of payments as we buy fewer materials for our requirements.
- As fibers get locally available, they don’t have to be transported from abroad thus reducing pollution and saving energy.
- Lesser energy is consumed while processing, as items don’t need to be re-dyed or scoured.
- Waste water reduces as it does not have to be thoroughly washed with large volumes of water as it is done for, say, raw wool.
- Demand is reduced for textile chemicals like dyes and fixing agents.
Collection of Wastes for Recycling
Most of the people willing for donating their used clothes prefer door-to-door pickup which is often conducted by nonprofit organizations within or otherwise municipal or county programs. Only few people go out of their way to make a drop off. Some counties even collect used textiles with frequent curbside recyclables pickup. Others go for less frequent quarterly or annual pickups. Textiles are generally not sorted at the point of collection. However, keeping them clean and free from moisture is significant. Wet, stained, or mildewed clothes cannot be sold for reuse. To avoid contamination, many charities also offer enclosed drop-off boxes for clothing or other fabrics .
Clothes are often given to the homeless, sold in charity shops or sold in developing countries. The un-wearable items are sold to merchants to be recycled and used as factory wiping cloths. Unsold and un-wearable clothing is sent to textile recycling plants and sold as raw materials to the textile recycling industry.
Recycling the Textiles
Textile recovery facilities sort out the overly worn or stained clothing into various categories. Some textiles become wiping cloths and polishing cloths. Cotton can be used for making rags or form a component for new high-quality paper. Knitted or woven woolens etc. are “pulled” into the state of fiber for reuse by the textile industry in low-grade applications, such as for car insulation or seat stuffing. Other kinds of fabric are reprocessed into fibers for upholstery, insulation, and even building materials. Buttons and zippers are taken off for reuse. The remaining natural materials like various types of cotton, can be composted. If all available means of reuse and recycling are properly utilized, only about 5% of the remaining solid waste needs to be disposed of.
As far as post industrial waste is concerned, all collected textiles are sorted and graded by highly skilled and experienced workers, who are able to recognize the large variety of fiber as against the shorter types resulting from the introduction of synthetics and blended fabrics. This post industrial waste is generally reprocessed inhouse. Clippings from apparel manufacture are also used by fiber reclaimers to make into garments, felt and blankets. Some recovered items are even reused by fashion designers for making garments and bags. However, this is on a very small scale.
Textile Recycling Industry- The Figures
More than 500 textile recycling companies are engaged in operating the stream of used textiles in the United States. The textile recycling industry employs approximately 10,000 semi-skilled workers at the primary processing level and creates an additional 7,000 jobs at the final processing stage. Primary and secondary processors account for annual gross sales of $400 million and $300 million, respectively.
- An estimated 11.9 million tons of textiles were generated in 2007. It equates to 4.7 % of total municipal solid waste (MSW) generation.
- As per the Council for Textile Recycling, textile recycling industry prevents 2.5 billion pounds of post consumer textile product waste from going into the solid waste stream annually.
- This 2.5 billion pounds of post consumer textile waste represents 10 pounds per person in the United States.
- About 500 million pounds of textiles collected are used by the collecting agency. The balance is sold to textile recyclers, including used clothing dealers and exporters, wiping rag graders, and fiber recyclers.
- Most textile recycling firms are small, family-owned businesses. Majority of them employ around 35 to 50 workers, many of whom are semi-skilled or marginally employable workers.
According to the Council for Textile Recycling, nearly half of discarded textiles are given to charities, who either give away clothes or sell them at discounted prices in secondhand stores. Approximately 61% of the clothes recovered for second-hand use are exported to other countries. Used textiles have a relatively stable and high price.