fibre2fibre recycling - turning the UK’s unwanted clothes into the latest fashion

28 January 2019

  • WRAP examines the economics of closed loop (fibre2fibre) recycling using UK post-consumer clothes and textiles.

A new report published today by sustainability experts WRAP is the first to examine the economic factors influencing fibre2fibre recycling and assess how it may help clothe the UK in the future. Using data from established and emerging business and academic trials, WRAP’s report (Fibre to fibre recycling: An economic & financial sustainability assessment) is the first detailed appraisal of the financial viability of using post-consumer clothing and textiles as feedstock for chemical and mechanical fibre2fibre recycling operations.

The focus on end-of-life clothing is an attempt to unlock alternative sources to virgin fibres for manufacturing clothes and supports WRAP’s work to reduce the environmental impact of clothing under the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan 2020Peter Maddox, WRAP Director explains, “We know that only housing, transport and food have greater environmental impacts than clothing, and with rising global demand we urgently need to secure new sources of materials and find new markets for used clothing. Fibre2fibre recycling offers a potential solution - but one that has not been properly investigated. 

“Our report is the first to explain the economics of fibre2fibre recycling and will help investors, business-developers and the recycling sector navigate this relatively young, uncharted field. New processes and entrants onto the market should be monitored to inform the business case for future investment, but we already see potential for post-consumer textiles to become part of the UK’s fashion scene.”

The research was undertaken ahead of the anticipated global shortfall in virgin textiles. This predicts limitations in future cotton supplies, the UK’s most used fibre, with projections suggesting a five-million-tonnes global cotton deficit* by 2020.

WRAP’s study models the finances for both chemical and mechanical fibre2fibre recycling processes for recovering polycotton and cotton respectively. It highlights the pressure points, and potential returns, and outlines the barriers to developing post-consumer fibre2fibre recycling; with recommendations for overcoming these, for example;

  • Modelling shows high sensitivities in both fibre2fibre recycling processes to the quality and cost of sorted and prepared feedstocks, and to output prices. 
  • Feedstocks (in terms of both quantity and quality) may not be economically met using manual sorting alone, particularly for chemical fibre2fibre recycling. Automated sorting using near-infrared spectroscopy may be critical to wider development. 
  • Chemical recycling processes are commercially farther off than mechanical but may offer higher economic potential in the long run. 
  • The development of technical processes and more supply chain integration need prioritising to enable scale-up to a commercial size. 
  • Collection and sorting are particularly important in the development of a post-consumer fibre2fibre marketplace. Demand from brands and retailers is essential, as is positive consumer perceptions of the use of post-consumer textiles. 

In terms of fibres providing the greatest potential for fibre2fibre recycling, cotton and polyester (found in mono-fibre fabrics and polycotton blends) are the leading materials. These are most commonly used in clothing and household textiles, with as much as three-quarters of post-consumer recycling grades containing polycotton blends. Growing demand for cotton and the potential for recycled cellulosic** material to replace cotton make this material likely to sustain viable income levels for recyclers. Limiting the use of problematic dyes and trims would also help increase the potential for greater recyclability of more clothes.

Further improvements in consumer messaging, and collection infrastructure, could positively influence the proportion of discarded clothing available for recycling. Consumer behaviour also affects the quality of garments received, with excessive washing and tumble drying at high temperature causing damage to clothing and effecting the quality of the fibres recovered in mechanical reprocessing.

The costs associated with feedstock are highly dependent on factors like transport and distances travelled and, as a result, the location from which they are sourced has a major impact on costs. Recent ECAP (European Clothing Action Plan) fibre2fibre recovery trials including the Dutch companies Tricorp, Schijvens and Havep show how innovative approaches to supply chain costs can overcome such barriers.

Alan Wheeler, Director Textile Recycling Association, “The Textile Recycling Association is very supportive of this important research by WRAP.  The fragility of existing fibre recycling markets is presenting a significant barrier to improving the overall sustainability of the fashion industry, which as we know has a huge environmental impact. 

“The current markets for mechanically recycled fibres are limited, and to be able to collect more clothing that is currently being disposed of we must find new markets for recycled fibres or risk flooding these markets and potentially having to dispose of low value recycling grade textiles. Clearly this cannot happen.  This research will help us to obtain a greater understanding of the market sensitivities, particularly of the fledgling chemical recycling processes, and how used textile collectors and processors may have to adapt their practices going forward to maximise value and recyclability of used textiles.”

Currently, an estimated £140 million-worth of clothing is sent to landfill every year in the UK and WRAP’s research will help inform SCAP 2020 re-use & recycling activities. As more data becomes available, further work would help enlarge upon these findings and WRAP believes this modelling exercise could be expanded to reflect a wider range of techniques and systems.


Notes to Editor

  • *Current global production of cotton is static at around 25 million tonnes annually and is subject to market control by source nations. There is little prospect for growth in annual production and cotton is likely to develop into an increasingly premium product. In its 2030 fibre strategy, global denim brand Levi’s® identified cotton as the most significant risk and predicted a deficit of five million tonnes globally by 2020. It is expected that demand for alternative products will rise significantly and may include cotton-like materials produced through fibre2fibre reprocessing of post-consumer cotton textiles.
  • **Chemically-recycled cellulosic material will no longer be ‘cotton’ even though it may retain many similar properties. Mechanically-recycled cotton fibres, albeit shorter in length, remain ‘cotton’. 
  • Current annual global clothing production utilises 98 million tonnes of raw materials. Growth in consumption is expected to drive this figure to 300 million tonnes by 2050.   
  • Around 650,000 tonnes of post-consumer textiles are collected annually (UK), based on reported 2014 figures. 
  • First established in 2000, WRAP is a not for profit organisation which works with governments, businesses and citizens to create a world in which we source and use resources sustainably. 
  • Our impact spans the entire life-cycle of the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the products we buy, from production to consumption and beyond.