For most of us at Circle Economy, we are very well versed in the insane amounts of “waste” that we are continually throwing “away”. When our newest team member, Magnus, joined Circle Economy, we got a chance to revisit the feelings we all had when we first realised the immense mountains of “waste” we generate. The story below is Magnus’ recounting of his first experience to a textile collecting/sorting facility.
Last week, members of Circle Economy set out to conquer the Netherland’s tallest mountain. That’s right, you’ll be quick to quip, the country isn’t exactly famous for its ‘above sea level’ statistics. Well, quip on friends, we’re not talking about a literal summit. Rather, our mountain was a metaphorical one, the Dutch clothing mountain, and while we did climb on top of the clothes at various points, that wasn’t our initial objective.
We were taking part in a sorting trial for Circle Economy’s Fibersort project. The Fibersort automatically sorts large volumes of post-consumer garments and finished products by fibre composition so that they can be recycled into new, high-quality textiles.
With the end goal of a fully operational and commercialized Fibersort machine, Circle Economy employees joined forces with Worn Again, a chemical recycler and Fibersort partner, to do some initial testing of Fibersorted outputs.
While this information will be crucial for the development of the technology, from a personal perspective, the experience of spending time at a textile collecting/sorting centre laid bare the scale of the problem ahead of us in physical terms.
It’s often difficult to put the daunting statistics into meaningful terms. The 235,000 tonnes of post-consumer textile “waste” produced annually in the Netherlands is equivalent to 20 times the weight of the Eiffel tower. For those living in NWE, the 13kg of waste we produce individually is the same as throwing away over 90 medium sized t-shirts each year!
Seeing that towering mountain of discarded clothes bailed and stacked to the ceiling exposes in concrete terms the relentless waste the clothing industry produces. Book your day out at a local collecting/sorting centre now, to get an insight yourself.
Inside the collecting/sorting centre
Inside the facility, reusable and recyclable materials travel vertically, horizontally, back and forth between different sensors and sorters before they end up neatly packed in cubes. The process is efficient, relentless and endless.
Every few hours the break bell rings and the sorters rush off for cups of coffee and 10 minutes of rested legs. The warehouse falls eerily silent. Walking through towards our own lunch, crates and crates of packed clothing tower overhead. Recognition of the scale of the operation underway and the challenge ahead is humbling. It also made us wonder where these mountains of material will end up. We have to turn to those aforementioned statistics to answer that question.
Of those 20 Eiffel towers generated in the Netherlands alone, only 90,000 tonnes are collected annually. With the remaining 62% being incinerated, our current best efforts reprocess just over ⅓ of potential waste available.
The Wieland/Smart Fibersorting facility (where Fibersort currently operates) just north of Amsterdam, sorts 200 tonnes of clothing per week. Of that, around half can be reworn but only 5% will be resold within the county, while the rest is exported. The remaining clothes that cannot be reworn would ideally be recycled into new textiles, however, the actuality is that most are downcycled for other industries or incinerated.
These statistics highlight many issues. The high export rate raises questions about the merits of exporting unwanted clothing, particularly to less economically developed countries; and whether the costs of landfilling/incinerating textiles should be diverted to build new systems/technologies that can recycle these old garments into new textiles.
A little summary of the week:
On the practical side, it was a week of hard work. Together we pre-sorted 4.9 tonnes of textiles, with 3.3 tonnes of this being sorted by the Fibersort machine. We then carried out a quality control step on 228 items and picked materials for 3 “products” for various testing.
These textiles were then all weighed according to their feedstock batch and Fibersort grade, and are now packed up ready to be shipped for further testing and recycling trials.
The new data we produced with this trial is already proving very useful. It showed that the Fibersort is able to sort for the necessary inputs required for Worn Again’s chemical recycling technology; it found cotton and polyester make up over 96% of the content in what is considered representative feedstock, with polyamide, acrylic and other fibres in very low quantities.
In addition to our contribution toward the development of the Fibersort technology, from a personal perspective, the experience was invaluable. As a new recruit to Circle Economy’s Textiles Team, for the first time I came face to face with the mountains of waste we produce in real terms. Facing up to that reality, often hidden behind dizzying statistics, is both daunting but necessary.
Overcoming the sense of helplessness that facing up to our environmental crisis often inspires, the massive potential for improvement is clear. While technologies like Fibersort make closing the material loop an approaching reality, there are also several steps you can take as an individual to accelerate that transition towards efficient recycling of post-consumer waste:
- Think twice before buying new and try to buy secondhand — there are plenty of clothes already in circulation.
- Donate all clothes — if they cannot be reworn, the collector/sorters will recycle them when possible.
- Make sure all donated clothes are clean and dry. Wet and dirty clothes increase the chance materials will end up in landfill/incineration!
- Visit a local collector/sorter — the chance to see this puts our consumption and disposal problem into perspective.
As a brand/ business you can also take concrete steps by taking part in an upcoming post-consumer textile recycling pilot. Learn more about Circle Economy’s Recycling trials here.