From collection to new life – how to increase the recycling of bio-based textiles

There is currently no adequate infrastructure for collecting end-of-life textiles, and even when they are taken care of, far from all of them are recycled. But fresh winds are blowing, and from 2025 an EU law will require all textiles to be collected separately. By spreading knowhow about the recycling of bio-based materials such as viscose, and by identifying the obstacles on the path from collection to new product, the Circular Textile Innovations (CITEX) project within BioInnovation aims to get more textiles circulating.

Fibre from recycled textile, produced in lab scale with the process of project partner TreeToTextile. Photo: RISE.

In Europe, less than half of all used textiles are collected for reuse or recycling, and only one percent become new clothes. Viscose and lyocell are examples of the group of bio-based textiles called regenerated cellulose fibres (or MMCF) that are rarely recycled today.

In a BioInnovation project, a wide range of participants are looking for comprehensive solutions that can increase the recycling of this type of textile. The project brings on board everything from collection and sorting operators, to machine manufacturers and the fashion industry.

– One important part of the project is to involve the entire value chain, to show that recycling is possible, and to find solutions that enable textiles to be included in a non-toxic circular value chain right now, says Tahani Kaldéus, senior project manager at Loop Factory and the project manager who is responsible.

New approaches can reduce the need for energy and chemicals

Tahani Kaldéus. Foto: Johan Olsson.

The project examines how the fibres can be recycled into new textiles, but also into packaging and chemical building blocks. Prototypes have been developed for each recycling stream, but an equally important focus has been to study how the processes can contribute to circularity and sustainability.

One interesting result is that the need for toxic and environmentally harmful chemicals in viscose production can be reduced. Among other things, the project challenges the need for bleaching before fibre production:

– Bleaching is a processing step with a major climate impact. Although 80 per cent of all textiles are dyed black or navy blue, the textile pulp is bleached white first. We can see that it would probably be sufficient to bleach the pulp grey, which would save significant amounts of energy and chemicals, says Tahani Kaldéus.

“The technology exists in order to realise our contribution to a circular value chain”

Project partner Valmet is involved in the aspect of the project that concerns processing the recycled textile into a raw material that can be turned into new textile fibres. Valmet is originally a supplier of processes and machinery, primarily to the paper and pulp industry.

Sofia Bylund. Foto: Henrik Högberg.

– Recycled textiles and cellulose-based textile fibres have become a prioritised development area for Valmet. In Sweden, we have the advantage of already having a well-established paper and pulp industry, and the principles and equipment required are similar to those used in pulp production.

The technology to realise our contribution to a circular value chain already exists, says Sofia Bylund, Manager Process Engineering in Valmet’s fibre processing business.

”Important to cooperate across sectors”

Something that was identified as a significant stumbling block is the lack of infrastructure for collection and sorting. Finding ways to secure access to sufficient volumes is described by the project as the basis for cost-effective flow, and the opportunities for industrial sorting have been investigated by project partner Wargön Innovation.

Ulrika Simonsson, TEKO.

Ulrika Simonsson, Sustainability Manager at TEKO, represents Sweden’s textile and fashion companies in the project:

– This is a gigantic transition for the textile industry and there is great determination among Swedish textile and fashion companies to move towards increased circularity. We see how incredibly important it is to collaborate across industry boundaries and along the entire value chain, so that everything that is recycled ends up where it brings the greatest financial and environmental benefits.

See the project page for Chemical recycling of man-made cellulose fibers (MMCF).