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COVID-19 is accelerating Asia's textile resource recovery industry

Graham Ross

DEC 1, 2020

While it is imperative that the fashion industry increases its funding appetite, the time and opportunity has presented itself for investment to come from outside the fashion industry to realise the attractive returns on offer and deliver measurable impact.

Like many industries, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has rocked global fashion.

We have seen massive disruption to textile supply chains, clothing retail stores boarded up and innumerable volumes of clothing left unsold, sadly destined for disposal in global landfills. But there can be an upside.

The fashion and textile industry has been presented with a window of opportunity. The future view is to reposition the industry, to focus on lower impacts on the environment while continuing to meet production levels. This can be achieved through investment into technologies that address the world’s textile waste challenges and will deliver quality recycled materials back into the manufacturing supply chain.

Why is this important?

Asia is pivotal to the global fashion industry. The region dominates the world's global fibre production of ~107 million tonnes, with China ruling global textile exports, shipping almost 40 percent of the total textile export market worldwide.

Over the last 20 years, the fast fashion trend has accelerated clothing production timelines and doubled production volumes.

We have long passed the figure of 100 billion garments produced each year.

Fast Fashion demands cheap and quick-to-produce clothes, where the man-made fabric, polyester, is commonly blended with coon. And consumers are purchasing more, and cheaper clothes that are worn fewer times.

On the plus side, this fashion trend has injected significant economic value into the Asian region as fashion brands chase low production cost models in emerging countries. On the negative side, the textile industry is at crisis point - fabric and garment production is increasing year on year, meeting and driving fashion consumption to record levels, and eventually into landfill. Until now, this tsunami of unwanted clothing has been held back by secondary markets, where clothing is resold into developing economies around the world.

The global pandemic has forced the closure of most countries' borders, effectively shutting down the global second hand clothing market, leaving insiders wondering if the industry will ever recover.

And nowhere in the world is textile waste more prevalent than in Asia. Despite banning second hand clothing imports, the world’s biggest clothing market, China, still discards 26 million tonnes of clothing each year. More goods produced in China are now being sold in China instead of being exported. Chinese consumers prefer to buy new and cheap than preloved clothing, which contributes to landfill volumes locally and overseas.
The textile waste problem certainly reaches beyond Asia, but it still fails to find a solution. The reality is, the world’s current textile recycling methods are inadequate at recycling, resource recovery and ultimately landfill diversion.

Globally, 87% of all disposed textiles is sent to landfill or incinerated, 12% is mechanically recycled by cuing or shredding into fibre, insulation material or rags and less than 1% is chemically recycled back to reusable raw materials.

While recycling plastics has been around for almost 50 years, textile recycling is very much in its infancy. The opportunity has been held back by outdated business models and limited innovation eorts that struggle to cope with modern day multi-fibre clothing.

International fashion brands are complicit in Asia’s textile waste problem. Despite a USD$2 trillion dollar market size, the fashion industry's investment in R&D is less than 1% of sales. Unfortunately, the industry focus has been driven by cost reduction and boom lines that ignore innovation and snub investment potential.

For years, textile industry reports have identified the critical need for commercial scale technologies with the ability to address textile waste challenges and at the same time, produce more fibres, fabrics and garments that have a lower impact on the environment.

Recycling and resource recovery in the fashion industry is vital and obvious, especially in Asia, where more than half the world’s population lives and a region that is a major manufacturer of the world's textiles and clothing.

The foundations of Asia’s textile resource recovery industry are already established, countries such as India have a robust recovery and reuse industry that is multilayered in scale and capabilities. But to truly accelerate change, investment in both soft tech and hard tech solutions is needed.

These solutions operate across the value chain from tracking and collection systems to understand the scale of textile waste and to identify high value recycling streams, to robotic sorting processes that will meet commercial scale needs and most importantly, solutions that transform waste into new raw materials.

Chemical separation of materials is an emerging technology but an exciting one. By separating everyday products such as sheets, clothing and towels back into their individual raw materials, the recovered resources can be reused back into the textile industry or into other products such as plastic packaging and plastic boles. The benefit of this separation process and in using recycled materials is the reduced impact on the environment by not producing virgin materials, plus recycled products recovered are available for use in new manufactured products.

Clean technology company BlockTexx is a Plug & Play - Alliance to end plastic waste alumni. BlockTexx has developed the S.O.F.T. (separation of fibre technology) process that combines chemical recovery technology and advanced manufacturing to produce high quality recycled materials of rPET pellets and cellulose powder from textile waste.

End of life solutions like BlockTexx are critical to repositioning the textile industry as they are located at the end of the textile value chain, where raw materials and end-of-use solutions have the highest environmental impact and revenue potential. Importantly as a raw material supplier of rPET and cellulose, BlockTexx works across many industries where recycled materials are prioritised for performance and economic value.

So what is the value that can be derived from investments in fashion technology and textile waste recovery? I suggest it is threefold; Economic, environmental and social.

Economically, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, “More than $500 billion of value is lost every year due to clothing underutilisation and the lack of recycling.”

Environmentally, the fashion industry significantly impacts water and land use to grow raw materials. Increasing recycled material production will also offset CO2 emissions - current raw material production of 1 tonne of textiles generates 17 tonnes of CO2 equivalent. For every kilogram of textiles processed by BlockTexx, 29kg of CO2e is offset.

Socially, clothing is part of everyday life. Consumers' behaviours and purchasing habits are changing and aligning to brands that have sustainability and recycling targets.

The impact of the C0VID-19 pandemic has communicated the need to accelerate the transformation of the textile industry. Financing innovation does come with risk; however, I believe these risks can now be mitigated.

While it is imperative that the fashion industry increases its funding appetite, the time and opportunity has presented itself for investment to come from outside the fashion industry to realise the attractive returns on offer and deliver measurable impact.

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