August 17, 2015

The Need for a Fashion-Industry Recycling Innovation Working Group

by Annie Gullingsrud

First, let me set the landscape for you: Per the 2012 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report, 28 billion pounds of textiles are discarded by U.S. homes annually. That’s about 70 pounds per person. Only 4.2 billion pounds (15 percent) of that is donated or recycled, leaving 85 percent or just under 24 billion pounds of textile waste going to U.S. landfills.  

Not to mention, even donated clothing can end up in the landfill, too. Sometimes these clothes get sold overseas, make the long journey to get there, are not sold and end up in the trash.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the effort, time and resources required to make the clothes we wear: There’s the creativity, the use of the earth’s resources, water, energy, the people, chemical use (which can be toxic and bioaccumulative), time and money. Is this how we treat something we value? We bury it and assume it just "goes away."

Well, it might be out of our immediate visual landscape, but the fact is, there really is no such thing as "away." Nope, it will sit, and sit and sit — Valuable resources, buried in the ground for the next 500 plus years. Synthetic fibers (e.g. polyester, nylon, elastane) won’t biodegrade in this lifetime and neither will blended synthetic/natural fibers (e.g., cotton/poly, cotton/spandex). Natural fibers will best decompose in a composting facility where there is just the right amount of air, temperature and sunlight (if the entire garment was designed to support this), but in landfill, they can produce methane emissions, which, if not captured, are powerful greenhouse gases.


This is the reality that we’re facing right now. We’re stuck in a system that doesn’t always make sense. That’s why our team at the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute feels so passionately about supporting an industry-wide perspective shift and being an active conduit to support the work.

Let’s stop treating our clothes as "waste."

William McDonough and Dr. Michael Braungart, founders of Cradle to Cradle, so simply stated: “Nature operates according to a system of nutrients and metabolisms in which there is no such thing as waste.”[i]

Instead, waste actually equals food and nutrients for other systems and metabolisms. We’re talking about a smarter, eco-effective use of all the time, money and resources we put into making our clothes. Makes a lot more sense, right?

Also, there’s no such thing as “end of life”; there’s no such thing as “end of use.” Why? Because there’s no “end.” The word "end" insinuates completion. We're not talking about a completion, but a continuation. The words we use on a daily basis can influence our perspective, attitude and behavior, so let’s get rid of the word “end” when we’re talking about textiles.

Let’s look to natural systems for inspiration. We can find an example in the earth’s hydrologic cycle, the continuous movement of water on the earth. The mass of water remains constant over time, but moves through the physical processes of evaporation, condensation, precipitation, infiltration, runoff and subsurface flow through one reservoir to another. It’s like the air, rivers, oceans, streams, atmosphere and mountains are all just “borrowers” of the molecules until they hand it off to the next “borrower.” In this system, there’s no downcycling or downgrading of the molecules in that process, just the continuous movement to the next physical process that can make good use of it. Quite stunning isn’t it?

Cradle to Cradle by design emulates natural systems. Let’s start looking at textile and apparel materials as we would the hydrologic cycle. Borrowers use the molecules or materials and hand them off to another borrower, who will use those molecules and materials before passing them off to another. Repeat. There’s no end, no waste. Again, quite stunning isn’t it?

Last year, the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute and Fashion Positive joined the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s (SAC) “Recycling Innovation Working Group,” a working group focused on identifying opportunities for fiber recycling of pre-consumer and post-consumer feedstock into virgin-quality yarns.

As an effort to continue the work that began with the SAC, the Institute will be leading the continuation of this group. The Institute has gathered a collective of global innovative fiber recyclers/manufacturers and big apparel brands to achieve one goal: support and facilitate the development of chemical fiber recycling technologies to allow for Cradle to Cradle solutions and innovations for pre-consumer and post-consumer waste/feedstock into new virgin-quality yarn.

The group kicks off in September with a series of calls that will culminate in an in-person meeting during the Cradle to Cradle Products Symposium in New York City on November 12. The in-person meeting will be a collaborative gathering of global brands and 10 innovative fiber recycling companies that will present their innovations to the group. The group will then decide on the next steps for 2016, including potentially leveraging industry investment to support the work.

Stayed tuned for more exciting updates.

[i] Excerpt From: William McDonough & Michael Braungart. “Cradle to Cradle.” iBooks.”

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