Textile recycling is the process of recovering fiber, yarn or fabric and reprocessing the textile material into useful products. Textile waste products are gathered from different sources and are then sorted and processed depending on their condition, composition, and resale value. The end result of this processing can vary, from the production of energy and chemicals to new articles of clothing.
Due to a recent trend of over consumption and waste generation in global fashion culture, textile recycling has become a key focus of worldwide sustainability efforts. Globalization has led to a "fast fashion" trend where clothes are considered by many consumers to be disposable due to their increasingly lower prices. The development of recycled technology has allowed the textile industry to produce vast amounts of products that deplete natural resources. Textile recycling techniques have been developed to cope with this increase of textile waste and new solutions are still being researched. Recently, certain clothing retailers have embraced this recycling effort and now publicly advertise products that are made of recycled textile material in accordance with shifting consumer expectations.
Pre-consumer or post-industrial waste consists of textile waste produced at the industrial stage of the production of textile material. Typically, these byproducts are produced by the textile, garment, cotton, and fiber industries and are repurposed by the furniture, home building, automotive, and other industries.
When recycling post-consumer textile waste, the sorting process is represented as a pyramid model in terms of the volume of material. At the base of the pyramid - and largest volume - is crude sorting, followed by exportation of second-hand clothing, conversion to new products, wiping and polishing cloths, landfill incineration for energy, and lastly diamonds. Typically within the pyramid model it is found that the volume of clothing items is inversely proportional to its monetary value, moreover meaning that despite diamonds making up the smallest sector (1-2%) of the sorting process they tend to be the most profitable.
The exportation of second-hand clothing is a growing global market; the trade market value doubled between the years 2007 and 2012 based upon declared reports alone. The exportation trend is most commonly from Western countries to developing countries or those experiencing disaster relief, with the United States of America being responsible for 45% of the total volume of Western exportation. In Africa specifically, Western clothing is a high commodity that imports $61.7 million of sales annually and in Sub-Saharan Africa these exports account for over a third of the total purchased garments.
The textile materials that are not found to have a viable market in any of the above categories are either sent to the landfill or are incinerated to produce electrical energy. Though incinerating municipal solid waste (MSW) is not yet feasible in the United States, it has been prolific in countries such as Denmark, Japan, and Switzerland where over two thirds of MSW is incinerated. In terms of calories, the energy values of burning MSW have been comparable with oil but there are still obstacles with increasing incineration efficiency and reducing harmful byproducts of the incineration such as noxious gases and ash.
Mechanical processing is the most commonly used technique to recycle textiles. Companies in the United States used about 7.6 million bales of cotton to manufacture textiles with each bale weighing 500 pounds. The cotton can be recycled through mechanical means after separating it from different materials. However, some plants can still process recycled material that is not purely made of cotton such as 98% cotton and 2% spandex. After an initial sorting, the raw material is further sorted by color to avoid re-dying and bleaching. Once done, the textile material is shredded and separated into fibers. The end product at this point is not usable yet and needs to be aligned before spinning. This process is known as carding. Now, the fibers are spun along with some virgin cotton fibers since recycled cotton fibers are shorter and lower in quality. Another commonly used material in mechanical processing is polyester. With this process, the recycled materials are not polyester textiles, but plastic bottles. Both are made of the same material known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Once the materials are sent to the facility, first they are sorted by color and type. Similar to cotton, the PET plastic is shredded into slices and washed to remove contaminants. The dried, shredded plastic is molded into PET pellets and undergoes extrusion to create new fibers.
Within Scandinavia specifically there are prolific applications of recycled textiles that have created mainstream market products. In Sweden, companies such as H&M and Lindex are including pre and post-consumer waste fibers within their new clothing lines. Similarly in Finland, Pure Waste is a clothing enterprise that creates t-shirts from recycled fibers in their 95% wind powered factories.