FASHION

Researcher: ”Climate policy that doesn’t address over consumption is not serious policy”

Does large-scale textile recycling in Europe reduce climate impact? A new study raises questions, concerns, and possibilities.
By JOHAN MAGNUSSON
January 23, 2024

Gustav Sandin Albertsson works as a researcher in life cycle assessment (LCA) of textile products and systems at IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute. In a new study — named Does large-scale textile recycling in Europe reduce climate impact? — he and his colleagues have researched the environmental impact of recycled textiles compared to conventional textiles from primary fibres in the past 10 years.

— The focus, he says, has been on individual recycling systems and marginal changes of the textile industry. Now we wanted to explore the potential environmental benefits, and drawbacks, of textile recycling if scaled up at massive scale — while attempting to capture the uncertainties in a more elaborate way than has been done before. This is important as much money and efforts are invested in increasing textile recycling to address, for example, the climate impact of fashion and other textile articles. Are these money and efforts well spent? Are others changes needed?

— The methodological approach is quite different in our study compared to previous studies, and it’s not necessarily so that the conclusions from a study of a single, delimited system can be extrapolated to find out the consequences of large-scale implementation of textile recycling. So in this research we looked at the climate-impact — more environmental issues will be covered later on — consequences for an increase in textile-to-textile recycling in the EU. What we’ve taken as an example is to go from 1% of collected textile waste today, to 26% until 2035 although the exact year and percentage are not very important here, and we don’t say whether this is a realistic pace in the scale up of textile recycling.

”What we’ve taken as an example is to go from 1% of collected textile waste today, to 26% until 2035”

What are the key takeaways here?

— We found that there is a 92% probability that an increase in textile-to-textile recycling in the EU, from 1 to 26% until 2035, will lead to reduced climate impact, based on a sensitivity analysis resulting in 62–98% probability, Sandin Albertsson shares, continuing,

— The average climate gain corresponds to just over 1% of the climate impact from production, use, and waste management of textile products purchased in the EU. Did you think that, of course, textile recycling equals reduced climate impact? Or did you think the benefit was larger? Then the good news is that our calculation is uncertain — because the future is uncertain. So there are things we can do to ensure and increase the climate benefits of future textile recycling. Two things we found to be particularly important:

1. That the climate impact from the collection of textiles and recycling processes is low, meaning that the processes are energy efficient and powered by energy with low climate impact.

2. That recycled textile fibers actually replace primary textile fibers. This requires fibers of high quality and that the production of primary fibers is actively phased out.

— But it’s also clear that other, stronger measures are needed to meet the industry’s climate challenge. Having said all this, it’s important to remember that the biggest environmental benefits of textile recycling are expected to be for other environmental problems, such as those of land use and water scarcity, where primary fibre production makes a much larger contribution to the total impact of the textile industry. The good thing is that both the points that I mentioned will help maximise these benefits as well.

So, what are the most crucial calls to action? And who is responsible for making it happen?

— We don’t want our report to be used to discourage increased textile recycling, because it’s definitely needed. But it’s clear that our research says that we cannot fully rely on ’closing the loops’, in terms of materials, to make the fashion and textile industries ’sustainable’. Or, for example, in terms of taking responsibility for its fair share in the global work towards meeting the Paris Agreement. It’s obvious from this research — and other previous research — that primary materials with high environmental impact must be actively phased out, for instance through policy, so recycled textiles not just add to a growing textile market, which has been described as ’the growth dilemma’.

— What’s also clear is that the entire production chain must become ’more sustainable’ – most climate impact is from later production stages: yarn spinning, weaving or knitting, confectioning, dyeing, and finishing — for example by fully switching to low-carbon energy sources. And also that over consumption must be addressed — or in LCA terms that each textile product is used more times and fulfil more functions, before being discarded. Climate policy that doesn’t address over consumption is not serious policy, Sandin Albertsson states.


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