It’s hard to recycle textiles, and it doesn’t really happen in Sweden. Yet the best thing for the environment is to recycle clothes.
Before we work out the concepts around reuse and recycling we need to make clear what’s happening now: Today most of the textile waste in Sweden is incinerated. 20% is reused and a small part will be recycled. In fact we are among the worst countries in Europe for the separate collection of textiles. There’s no law for collection and no recycling industry.
Reused clothes are gold clothes
So go nuts at second hand shops, go vintage and go swap. Clothes last much longer when you choose quality over quantity.
Remember that fashion goes in cycles. Bootcut jeans will be in again, V-jeans too. Low waist, high waist. There are sudden changes in the fashion industry, so why not save those favourite jeans, that favourite shirt and t-shirt even if they’re not modern right now? They’ll be in again in two months time. Or two years.
The nice thing is that if you have the space you save both the environment and money by keeping them well and reusing them when they become 'trendy again.
And for all you creative people: Creating new from old is amazing. Jeans can become a bag, trousers become a skirt, you can download endless inspiration from the web.
Recycling clothes is difficult
You’d think it should be easy to recycle clothes in Sweden, but no. It’s hard, and it doesn’t really happen in Sweden. Read more below.
When clothes become rubbish
Reduce and prevent
Waste that never occurs is the best waste. At Sysav we devote much of our time to informing and inspiring people to shop less new things and use more recycled things for smarter and more sustainable shopping. Four Fit Challenge is a good example of that.
We encourage people to reuse garments instead of recycling them. As it’s hard to recycle. See the next point.
And now to the more complex issue of recycling. There are several different types of textile recycling. The most common is to mechanically chop up the fabric into smaller parts / fibres that are then used as rags, stuffing in mattresses, carpeting or insulation. This type of recycling is often called low-grade recycling because the new product has a lower value than the original product.
How much environmental benefit this type of recycling can contribute is difficult to predict as it depends on what is being replaced. If you replace a cloth made of recycled textile for a cloth of new textiles the environmental benefit is almost as large as in reusing, but if you replace it with paper cloths (which is often the case in industry) the environmental benefit is very low. A small part of the clothing collected Sweden goes to this type of recycling abroad.
When it comes to recycling textile fibres such as new clothes, we must first distinguish between natural and synthetic fibres as these are completely different recycling processes.
It is possible to recover natural fibres (such as cotton) but it is done by mixing it with new fibres. Just like paper fibres, natural fibres become shorter each time they are used / recycled and therefore must be mixed with new cotton (or polyester) to hold together. In 2014 there was a breakthrough for natural fibre recycling when the company Re:newcell in Sweden produced the world's first dress made of 100% recycled cotton.
Recycled polyester is not usually produced using old clothes, but from PET bottles. There are techniques to recycle polyester from old textiles but this is only in a very small scale right now.
There’s a lot of research on recycling textiles, and there are examples of successful small-scale recycling projects (like Nudie jeans). We’re rooting for them.
Suggestions for solutions
Today no organization is responsible for textile producers in Sweden*. When there is a responsible body, they force companies to either have systems to collect materials for recycling and reuse, or get them to pay a fee to the organizations which reuse and recycle today. Today there are responsible bodies in the electronics and the packaging industries who have contributed to the existence of recovery systems in those sectors. Collection of textiles in Sweden today is primarily through charitable organizations.
A responsible body for textiles would mean that producers must take greater responsibility for developing resource-efficient textiles, without hazardous substances, which can be reused and recycled in a simple way. And it would be great!
*Since 2013 The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency proposed a motion to the government to have a regulating body for textiles.
Clothes that cannot be reused or recycled are incinerated together with residual waste, and become district heating and electricity.
But more than half of the textiles produced in the world is synthetic, and oil-based. Which means that if we burn them, we burn fossil fuel that is non-renewable. It’s complex work. With your help it becomes much simpler - Recycle and don’t buy more rubbish. Together we can make a big difference for the planet.
(Source: Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, IVL, Swedish government)
Återvinning av kläder är som sagt knepigt. Det är svårt att tillverka ny textil, så som man kan göra med plast och metall.