Textile & Fashion Forum juttusarja: Circular economy models are needed to make textile business more sustainable

In Finland, 90 million kilos of waste textiles are generated every year, and up to 60 per cent of it ends up as combustible energy. To strengthen its sustainability, the textile industry is focusing on promoting circular economy models. Success requires good cooperation throughout the supply chain.

Photo: ANDRITZ

Sustainability advisor Katri Pylkkänen from Finnish Textile & Fashion association has closely followed the industry’s sustainability discussions and development. “Practically all players in our industry agree on the challenges related to our business. We know that we need to develop more ecological production methods, in addition to materials made of non-virgin raw materials.”

Euratex has been working on developing new, more responsible operating models for a long time. The work was accelerated in early 2020 by the EUR 750 billion EU Recovery and Recovery Support Instrument (Next Generation EU). It was created by the EU Commission with the target of revitalizing the EU economy during the Covid-19 pandemic.

”The Recovery Support programs focus on a digital and sustainable economy. We invited the textile industry stakeholders to co-develop the most suitable circular economy solutions for our industry. Our focus was to bring together different expertise, unify circular economy models, and accelerate their introduction in Europe,” says Mauro Scalia, Director of Sustainable Businesses from Euratex.

“The ReHubs initiative” is based on five recycling centers, ReHubs. They recycle textile waste more efficiently by increasing the industrial sorting, treatment, and recycling of pre- and post-consumer materials.

The EU commission released a new circular economy package in March 2022. As part of it, the new textile strategy aims to move the textile industry towards an increasingly sustainable and responsible future.

“Achieving this objective will require fundamental changes in the textile industry supply chain. We need to take on circular economy operating models that cover all activities from textile design to manufacturing, from how textiles are being used and how materials can be recycled,” Pylkkänen points out.

In support of this change, the regulation of the textile industry is going through extensive reform. “Regulation that promotes responsible operations is coming up in 16 different areas of the textile industry,” says Scalia. “A huge amount of material needs to be processed within a strict timeframe and according to the EU participatory model. The process requires an active participation of all textile stakeholders interested in influencing their own future.”

Finland is a forerunner in new sustainable textile fibers and recycling solutions

In Finland, circular economy business models have been under discussion for a long time. Pylkkänen sees that Finland is a pioneer in this area. “To develop new fibers, high-quality R&D work has been carried out here for decades and now many companies are on the threshold of commercialization,” she says.

Huge leaps have also been made in textile recycling both in Finland and in the EU over the past few years. One concrete indication that Finland is at the forefront of development is the introduction of separate collection for textile waste. Finland will start the collection next year – two years before the official deadline set by the EU.

Andritz provides equipment for mechanical and chemical textile recycling

Austrian equipment supplier Andritz AG has been developing production equipment for paper and pulp since the 1980s. Andritz Oy has several competence centers and workshops in Finland and almost all equipment for the pulp industry is designed and made in Finland.

“Our customers want better value from their wood fiber compared to what is currently created by making pulp or paper. When they started to work on new fiber-based bioproducts, we also began to develop equipment and processes which could produce new bioproducts,” says Hannu Råmark, VP, Technology, Fiber Technologies, Andritz Oy.

Andritz saw quickly that new customers could be found particularly in the textile industry. “Because cotton is made of cellulose – like pulp and paper – we knew that we could use our expertise and existing equipment in textile recycling,” Råmark explains.

The utilization of recycled textiles requires equipment for both mechanical and chemical processes.

In the mechanical process, devices separate metallic parts, such as zippers and buttons, from recycled textiles and tear the material into small pieces suitable for the next stage. The material can then go through a chemical treatment process in which the new textile-based pulp is produced.

For the development of textile recycling, Andritz was happy to find a partner closer than they had anticipated.

”We had researched the use of chemical modification of cotton fiber. In that connection we learnt that Infinited Fiber Company in Finland was working in the same area. We contacted them and agreed on co-operation, where we validate the operation of our equipment in Infinited Fibre Company’s fiber production processes,” says Råmark.

Sorting technologies have improved in recent years, and they already enable fiber separation.

”Textile blends, such as cotton-polyester, are the main raw materials for textile recycling. New technology within the recycling business can nowadays analyze e.g. which fibers a textile has been made of. We have  the information of the textile fiber composition, we are able to handle recycled materials properly and use them as extensively as possible in producing new fibers,” explains Elina Pesonen, Product Manager of Andritz Oy.

Recycling is a key part of the circular economy: we need to consider what kind of systems are needed to collect discarded products. But it is equally important to consider what to do with the collected material.

How can we best promote the implementation of circular economy practices in everyday life – in all parts of the supply chain?

”I would like to see more incentives in place that push us to make choices promoting circular economy – for example, choosing quality over price in order to change people’s buying and consuming habits, the products manufactured according to the circular economy principles must be genuinely attractive,” concludes Pylkkänen.

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