Unraveling the recycling challenge in fashion

June 10, 2024

Clothes recycled by GEA

Clothing has become increasingly disposable in today's fast fashion culture. Only a small percentage is collected and made into reusable material, in part because so much new clothing combines synthetic and natural fibers, which is hard to recycle. That’s a big problem for the environment and wastes precious resources. GEA offers industrial scale solutions that support circularity in the textile value chain.

As living standards rise in many countries, so too has demand for “fast fashion” – inexpensive clothing that can be ordered with a click of a button and sent to your home in a matter of days. According to the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, prior to the covid pandemic, the average consumer bought 60 percent more pieces of clothing than 15 years ago and kept each item for half as long. The fast-fashion phenomenon underscores and heightens – literally – a decades-long challenge: the need to reduce the environmental impact of textiles and textile production. The industry, as reported in the UN Environment Programme 2023 report, “Sustainability and Circularity in the Textile Value Chain”, uses trillions of liters of water, contributes around nine percent of annual microplastic losses to oceans and is responsible for up to eight percent of global carbon emissions.

Add to this, the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion estimates that the fashion industry was losing an estimated USD500 billion in value each year – pre-covid – due to lack of recycling and unsold clothes being sent to landfills. Sustainable solutions for end-of-life textiles are underdeveloped or missing completely in many countries. It is commonly reported that as little as one percent of textile waste is fiber-to-fiber recycled. The situation is particularly acute for mixed textiles, those made from synthetic material, like polyester (polyethylene terephthalate (PET)) and organic fibers, like cotton. In its “2025 Recycled Polyester Challenge” annual report from 2022, the Textile Exchange estimated that the apparel industry used 32 million tons of polyester fiber in 2019 of which just 14 percent was recycled (rPET).

Moving from a linear to a circular value chain

Scenes of discarded clothing clogging up waterways or burning in smoldering rubbish piles are hard to miss in today’s media-driven world. With good reason, consumers and governments alike demand that more discarded clothing be recycled; their efforts are starting to bear fruit.

In 2020, France passed a law banning the destruction of unsold clothing and has a goal to recycle 70 percent of textile waste by 2024. One of the historical centers of haute couture, France is doubling down on fashion waste by industrializing collection, sorting and recycling of textiles and even incentivizes its citizens to have their clothing and shoes repaired. In 2024, the EU followed suit with its own law banning the destruction of unsold clothing and returned items, with exemptions for small and medium enterprises. And as of January 1, 2025, all EU member states will be obliged to collect textiles separately. Sweden, France and Denmark now want the EU to implement new global rules governing the export of textile waste to developing countries, which is still under consideration.

A circular value chain for mixed-fiber clothing can drastically reduce the amount of virgin PET and cotton entering the textile supply chain. However, to recycle these more complex items, a chemical process is required to separate, isolate and create reusable polymers and fibers. As a first step the material is broken down to a molecular level through the use of chemicals. Next, contaminants are removed. The end result is high-quality polymer, such as PET, which can be reused in new clothing or other applications. It sounds easy. However, several steps are involved which require engineering-, process- and chemical expertise, particularly if it is done in a sustainable manner.

GEA solution for PET recycling from clothing

Following on the heels of its success in the area of PET bottle recycling, GEA is now using this related expertise to perfect PET recycling from clothing. The most common scenario is for GEA to partner with companies that are developing complete chemical recycling lines. Within these, GEA provides its innovative evaporation, crystallization, reaction, distillation, solid liquid separation and drying solutions which enable PET to live a second life.

Evaporators and crystallizers are heated with mechanical vapor recompression (MVR), which allows water to be recycled from the process condensate. Where possible, GEA also helps customers reuse waste heat from this process, turning it into an energy source, as well as recover valuable organic compounds. Solutions to reuse left over sodium sulphate from the recycling process – either in a closed loop option, as a valorized product for other applications – or both – are currently in development.

GEA’s U.S.-based customer Circ, tackles the toughest challenges in textile recycling. In the case of polycotton, Circ applies a hydrothermal process, turning polyester fibers into a liquid, using just heat, water and a low percentage (<5) of chemicals to fully separate cotton and polyester blends. As a result, both monomer and cotton are preserved without damage and suitable for reuse in new textiles.

Within this process, GEA supports Circ in the monomer recovery phase. “Circ sets exacting targets in monomer recovery and co-product treatment,” explains Laurent Palierne, Director Evaporation & Crystallization at GEA. “We successfully refined and replicated key phases of the process in our test centers, which allowed us to deliver the precision required by the complex monomer recovery process.” Along with its test centers, GEA has decades of expertise in evaporation, crystallization, heat transfer, mixing, solid and liquid separation, distillation and drying, which makes GEA a natural partner for customers like Circ. The outcome of the cooperation is a new process design that can serve as a template for the world's first dedicated PET recycling plant for textiles; Circ expects to be operational with its new plant by 2027 in Europe where government funding is more readily available.

Fashion reimagined: Everyone can contribute

The fashion industry is driven by trends. Each new season brings new colors and new designs. Unfortunately, one trend remains constant: the increasing negative impact of textiles and textile production on the environment if we do not create a circular textile value chain. Just as GEA fills important gaps in the industrial PET recycling process, everyone has a role they can play in reducing the environmental impact of clothing.

Consumers can adopt a less-is-more attitude, wash items less frequently to prevent shedding of microplastics and find ways to repair and recycle clothing rather than treating it as waste. Clothing brands too, have many levers to take more responsibility for their products. They can use more recycled raw material, offer after-sales repair and their own second-hand items and recycle unsold and returned items instead of incinerating them. It’s time to get creative!

“The positive implications of scaling textile recycling technology, particularly where synthetics are involved, is massive,” says Palierne. “We could help brands recycle more unsold items and produce rPET at a price producers can afford to plow back into their production.” As the fashion and larger textile industry become more circular, harmful emissions from virgin PET production are reduced, fewer microplastics enter global waters and consumption and land use from cotton production are reduced as well. That is why GEA is so passionate about finding the right solution for textile recycling customers and engineering for a better world.

A bottle recycled by GEA machines

GEA enables PET plastic bottle recycling

Through its chemical and separation portfolio, GEA makes a positive contribution to recycling PET from post-consumer bottles and packaging for reuse in diverse industries. Known as rPET, recycled PET is used in:

  • packaging
  • clothing & shoes
  • household goods
  • hygiene products
  • trunk liners

Making PET safe for food-grade applications requires super-clean recycling processes which decontaminate post-consumer PET to concentration levels of virgin PET materials.

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