By Zachary Gray, B.Eng. Biosci., Chemical & Bioengineering

Canadians dispense with their frayed, used clothing by the millions of tons each year.  Good Samaritans flood noble ventures, including the Salvation Army Thrift Stores and Goodwill Services, with their worn textiles, while some consumers exchange their threads for in-store vouchers with fast fashion lines, such as H&M, keeping their closets and racks well stocked.  The hope is that these used clothes will be recycled or given a second lease on life, inspiring joy in another person that only an excellent pair of second-hand jeans can.  The reality, however, is bleaker.  For convenience, many will deposit their clothes in the trash, while only a fraction of the donated items will find their way onto other people’s backs, while another minuscule sum replenishes the country’s supply of polishing cloths and carpet fibres.  Most of the time, the used garments are landfilled.  Therein lays the problem — and the opportunity — for recycling textiles in Canada.

The Current Situation

Textile recycling in Canada is in need of resuscitation: The country’s current trajectory is as environmentally damaging as it poorly understood.  For context, landfilling claims 85% of the wearable textiles and 99% of non-wearable ones, such as shoes and towels. The thoughtful donations and in-store voucher trade-ins, packaged in bulk and either sold in local thrift shops or abroad are usually of poor quality and are promptly thrown out.  African countries, such as Kenya, where an estimated 80% of the population wear second-hand clothing were once popular destinations for Canadian’s used clothing.  They are now imposing steep tariffs to curb the increasing amount of textile waste imported and thrown almost immediately into their landfills.  What is more, recycling used clothing has been a technically challenging and economically ruinous venture, at least up until this point in time.  In sum, either directly or not, the average Canadian tosses away some 37 kilograms of textiles per annum.

Textile Bans and Environmental Impacts

The cities of Markham, ON and Brandon, MB banned textiles from their respective garbage collections in an attempt to curb higher volumes of fabric from further occupying landfill space.  Vancouver, BC is weighing a similar decision.  

However, the problem continues to grow as consumption levels climb, and the consequences are farther reaching than landfill occupancy and degradation by-products.  Clothing production doubled worldwide between the years 2000 and 2014, while consumers purchase 60% more textile products and keep them for half the time.  For context, the average Canadian now buys 72 textiles items annually.  

As Canadians’ tastes for textiles increases, so too are the demands on its supply chain, placing further stress on sourcing raw materials as well as water and power consumption.  Textile fibres spun and manufactured from crops, such as cotton and hemp, and synthetics, including acrylics, nylons, and polyesters, each has its own carbon footprint.  For example, polyesters generate 9.52 kg-CO2 for every ton made, while conventionally farmed, non-organic, cotton and hemp produce 5.09 and 4.05, respectively.  

Image courtesy of Waste Reduction Week in Canada.

There are additional environmental costs in manufacturing synthetic fibres. For instance, processes making nylon products emit significant quantities of nitrous oxides, which are approximately 300 times worse in terms of their greenhouse gas potency.  The electricity demands placed on the power grid for processing the textile fibres are immense.  Spinning, knitting, and weaving are all energy-intensive steps, as are driving a facility’s air conditioning systems, pumps, and compressors.  Analysts estimate that the textile business consumes one trillion kilowatt hours annually worldwide.  

The water consumed, and often treated with dyes and other chemicals, in making textiles is commensurately high.  In illustrating the point, a single cotton shirt uses 2,700 litres of water while a pair of jeans uses 6,800.  A World Bank reported estimated that textile manufacturing accounts for 17-20% of the industrial water pollution globally.  

This tallying of textile’s environmental impacts does not include the considerable land requirements both for production, but more importantly, disposal, nor the industry’s complex socioeconomic, possibly exploitive, relationship with labour forces, many of whom are women in developing countries.  Given the high demands placed on energy production and commodities, as well as the vast sums overrunning landfills, Canadians’ relationship with textiles is unsustainable and needs readjustment.

Change is Happening

A paradigm shift leveraging multiple strategies can help Canadian reorient their increasing demands for textiles.  Encouraging changes in consumer habits and possibly embracing new recycling technologies are two options.

Canadians recycle approximately 15% of wearable and 1% of non-wearable textiles each year.  Polishing and cleaning cloths account for 20% of the amount recovered, while fibre insulations claim another 26%.  

Innovative Companies

Canadian Textile Recycling Ltd. based in Burlington, Ontario is an example of a start-up business furthering the cause of textile recycling.  They are perfecting their WOOLTEX sorting system, adeptly refashioning used clothes into cleaning cloths and shipping reusable items abroad.  Theoretically, the majority of textiles are recyclable or reusable, but neither has been economical.  Together blended cotton, composed mostly of bleached cellulose, and polyester fibres are worth little, but invaluable separately.  Thermally separating complex fibre blends have been economically infeasible until recently.

Several new ventures are focusing on textile recycling.  The UK-based Worn Again Technologies secured investment of $8.8 million for scaling their textile decontamination and polyester extraction platform solution.  The start-up’s brain trust from the University of Cambridge believes there are enough textiles and plastic water bottles in circulation to supply various industries’ raw material needs.

Purified cotton waste garments are shredded and then extruded into a fibre for reuse in new clothing

The Seattle-based Evrnu is another ascending textile recycling start-up.  Their technology regenerates fibres at the molecular level suitable for new manufacturing. Evrnu recently secured venture capital financing from the Closed Loop Cycle Fund, a heavyweight in the clean-technology investment space, in recognition — and hope — for their company’s economic viability.
Levi Strauss & Co. sells the world’s blue jeans made from regenerated post-consumer cotton waste fibres from Evrnu.

Outside of clothing, Quebec’s Victor Innovatex’s Eco Intelligent Polyester (“EIP”) is a cradle-to-cradle furniture textile made from recycled plastics.  The company estimates that their EIP textile, generated using their antimony-free catalyst technology, reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 80% in comparison to using virgin polyesters while creating a sustainable product ecosystem.

Adjusting consumer behaviour throughout the cycle of buying, wearing, and disposing can have a significant impact.  Part of the problem is fast fashion brands making inexpensive, easily disposable garments that are difficult to repair and even harder to recycle due to their poor quality.  There is a correlation between the rise of fast fashion and the growth of the middle-class and their incomes, negating the argument that purchasing higher quality items is out of reach for most consumers.  Consumers’ dollars are pushing the market, not the other way around.  The British government recently announced that they are considering a tax on fast fashion items, with the hope of dampening consumer activity in that market segment.

Aside from choosing higher-quality clothing, selecting brands that purposefully reduce waste is additionally beneficial.  Picking designers with zero waste, such as the St. James brand from Queen’s, NY, also helps.  The Toronto-based twins Alex and Lindsay Lorusso have taken the concept of zero waste clothing a step further with Nudnik, their fashion line for children.  Nudnik makes fun and affordable apparel from other clothing manufacturers’ scraps and discarded fragments, essentially making the brand negative-waste. Nudnik and St. James’s concepts are forward-thinking and straightforward, yet they too shall eventually go.

Nudnik t-shirt made entirely from off-cut fabrics and end-of-roll threads 

While vast sums of donated clothing find their way to the landfill, many people throw their old clothes away instead of letting a charitable organization or recycling service evaluate them.  The fact remains that considerable volumes of trash-destined textiles are reusable.  The reasons are many, but one in particular is that donation bins in larger urban centres are sparse.  Vancouver’s Revify is addressing bin scarcity in their city by partnering with high-rise condominiums and eliminating the convenience factor of filing away old clothing in the trash.  Recycling can happen in other ways, too.  Community-wide clothing swaps and drives are also viable strategies in furthering one’s original purchases: someone else can enjoy them; this tactic applies to other textiles as well.

Textile waste is an issue we wear, sleep with, and have little concept of.  Canadians are less able to export the problem as it consumes land, resources, and money.  And while a magic bullet solution for textile recycling is a lovely idea, most technologies are in their infancy; people must rethink their relationship with clothes and fabric during the interim period of unwittingly purgatorial proportions — if only they knew.

About the Author

Zachary Gray graduated from McMaster University with a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering & Bioengineering.  He has worked with several early-stage cleantech and agri-industrial companies since completing his studies, while remaining an active member of his community.  He is enthusiastic about topics that combine innovation, entrepreneurism, and social impact.