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The Price of Sustainability: understanding the economics of Textile Recycling

Why, you ask, does one have to pay to provide their textiles for recycling when suppliers of virgin fibres would find themselves getting paid for their raw materials? Recyclers in textiles can often request payment on both sides: to receive textiles and for their recycled yarns.

The answer lies in the intricate dance of market dynamics and the complexities of recycling economics. Theoretically recycling works, and is beneficial to the entire economy, but in reality, there are many factors that prevent this from happening.

Understanding the Equation: Costs vs. Value

Picture this scenario: the demand for recycled textiles can be uncertain and, at times, modest. The expense of recycling—ranging from sorting and cleaning to processing—can sometimes surpass the economic value of the final recycled material. It's a balancing act of costs, market demand, and the quality of materials involved.

Contrast this with materials like virgin cotton, which tend to enjoy a smoother journey before they reach manufacturers.

Unveiling the Factors at Play

Here are a few reasons why payment might be involved when giving textiles to textile recyclers, which are all driven by the need to mitigate risks in adding costs that would jeopardise profit:

  1. Market Demand and Value: The market demand and value of recycled textiles can vary. Sometimes, the cost of recycling might outweigh the value of the resulting material. If the demand for recycled textiles is low or the cost of recycling processes is high, recyclers might charge fees to cover their expenses.

  2. Processing Costs: Textile recycling involves sorting, cleaning, and processing the materials, especially when dealing with post-consumer textiles (your worn wardrobe) which remains very labour-intensive after the initial upfront investments into specialised equipment. These expenses might be passed on to those providing the materials not least if the quality cannot be assessed until it is at the facility.

  3. Quality of Input Material: The quality of textiles destined for recycling plays a pivotal role too. Contamination, damage, or complex composition can significantly hike up the cost of processing, impacting the economics of recycling. At times it can make the recycling even impossible, and the waste becomes a cost to the recycler. For instance, elastomers aren't fitted for mechanical recycling, and would be disposed of (like your swimsuit and panty hose).

  4. Economics of Scale: The cost dynamics can change based on the volume of materials being recycled. Large-scale recycling operations might have more efficient processes, leading to reduced costs. However, smaller quantities of textiles might incur higher costs per unit due to less efficiency, that is if they can be accepted at all.

  5. Market Forces: Different materials have distinct market dynamics. While some materials might have a higher intrinsic value or be easier to process economically, mixed textiles will have lower resale values or higher processing costs (mixed recycled fibres are less valuable). Recycled cotton for instance has a higher demand (natural material, perceived favourably) and is easier to recycle or repurpose compared to a mixed fibre material, affecting its pricing positively.

Fun fact: did you know that recycled polyester is the most produced recycled fibre for textiles? But unlike recycled cotton, it almost never comes from discarded textiles. The PET from your plastic bottles are more often recycled for the fashion industry than any other application.

In some cases, subsidies or incentives may also exist to encourage recycling, but the specific costs involved can vary widely based on the material and the recycling infrastructure in place. Governments are often interested in funding pilots and infrastructure, but the ongoing operational costs remain.

Paving the Way Forward: better design, more collaboration... and a huge slowing down

Innovation and collaborative efforts hold immense promise but we need better .design to ensure fibres can be recycled at a higher value, and improved recovery streams to capture these once they are in the hands of consumers.

Not least, we need to slow down the rate at which we produce clothing: just like the plastic industry, no recycling scheme can keep up with the flow of inbound products flooding our retail if we don't reduce our fashion production.

Talk to us! Have you encountered challenges or success stories in textile recycling? Your insights, experiences, and innovative ideas could spark the next wave of change!

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