In 2010, the world consumed a record 69.7 million tonnes of clothes. That's up from 47.4 million tonnes 10 years earlier, according to statistics from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.
The figures translate to about 10kg of clothes per person in 2013, up from 6.7kg 10 years earlier. That may not sound like a lot but the world population is growing, as are Western habits. Apparel consumption is likely to keep increasing, an alarming thought as most worn-out clothing goes straight to the landfill.
"Until now old clothes have often been used as filler material for underneath wall-to-wall carpeting, but when the carpeting is removed or the building is knocked down, the material goes to the landfill anyway," says Lewis Perkins, senior vice-president of the San Francisco-based Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, which develops sustainable new uses for discarded products.
Now several companies are trying to change that equation. Scientists at Stockholm's Royal Institute of Technology have developed a way of recreating cotton, which not only accounts for roughly a third of the world's textile consumption but is also in danger of becoming a scarce resource as the world's increasing population needs more land for food production.
In June, a group of Swedish companies presented the world's first garment made entirely from recycled cotton: a yellow dress that looks no different from the fashion range at H&M or Zara.
"The scalability of this process is enormous," says Henrik Norlin, business development manager at Re:newcell, which made the material. "The technology allows us to recycle all materials that contain cellulose."
This is how it works: old cotton clothes are brought to a factory and shredded, then turned into a porridge-like substance.
After non-recyclable pieces like zippers and buttons have been removed, the porridge is broken down to the molecular level and turned into a fibre substance to be used for thread, resulting in rayon fabric.
"We can recycle fabrics that contain a mix of cotton and other materials but get the best results when recycling pure cotton," says Norlin.
Re:newcell is now preparing to build its first fabric-recycling factory, which will open within the next 18 months.
"It will be able to process 2,000 tonnes per year, allowing us to show the scalability of the process," says Norlin.
Re:newcell will then add factories in other European countries such as Britain and Germany that produce large amounts of cast-off clothing.
The company is also forming partnerships with textile companies, which will buy Re:newcell's pulp rather than the typical rolls of fabric. One of the companies already involved is SKS Textile, based in the Swedish city of Boras.
With other companies involved in the research and development behind the yellow dress, SKS Textile was responsible for making it. Chief executive Urban Olsson says that SKS is working with the public sector, primarily the county-led health care system, to supply health care workers with uniforms made from the recycled fabric.
Japanese company Teijin has developed a technology that polymerises polyester, turns it into polyester chips and converts them into new fibres of equal quality. The result is a polyester fabric that's as good as that in the discarded clothes.
According to Teijin, the process reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 77 per cent compared to polyester made from petroleum.
The prospect of clothes recycling makes fast fashion seem a lesser environmental crime. From a sustainability perspective, the Swedish cotton recycling scores particularly well because it uses no new ingredients other than timber, whose cellulose fibres can be added to existing cotton ones.
Some manufacturers, including Levi's, already incorporate discarded clothing into new items.
Norlin predicts that clothes recycling will take a similar trajectory to paper recycling.
"Early on in paper recycling, only a small share of paper was recycled. Now most paper is recycled. We could see fabric do the same thing," he says.
Guardian News & Media