Most fashion brands now claim that the clothes they showcase are recycled. The recycled content increases with time; some aim to make 100 percent apparel from recycled material.
For instance, H&M’s flagship Paris store rarely finds clothes made from “recycled materials”. Last year, almost 80 percent of its polyester-based apparel was produced from recycled material, and the company aims for it all to be recycled.
Most fashion brands boast that recycled material reduces the industry’s dependence on virgin polyester made from fossil fuels. However, critics say that 93 percent of recycled textiles come from plastic bottles, not textile waste—Urska Trunk of campaign group Changing Markets told in other words, from fossil fuels.
She says plastic bottles can be recycled five or six times, but a T-shirt in recycled polyester “can never be recycled again.” Almost all recycled polyester is made from PET (polyethylene terephthalate) from plastic bottles, according to the non-profit Textile Exchange.
In Europe, most textile waste is either dumped or burned. Only 22 percent is recycled or reused – most of which is turned into insulation, mattress stuffing, or cleaning cloths. The situation is worse in Asian economies where most of the population lives.
According to the European Commission, less than one percent of the fabric used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing. Lenzing, an Austrian manufacturer famous for its wood-based fibers, says recycling textiles is much more complex than recycling other materials, such as glass or paper. For starters, clothes made from more than two fibers are now regarded as unrecyclable. The clothes that can be recycled must be sorted by color and then have zips, buttons, studs, and other materials removed. It is often costly and labor intensive, say experts, though pilot projects are beginning to appear in Europe, said Greenpeace’s Lisa Panhuber. The technology is in its infancy.