Recycling Is Not The SOLUTION. It Is Simply The LAST OPTION.

Published on by Nitin Dani

What do you do with unwanted clothing?

You can take some of your past favorites to a Swapping Party like other conscious fashionistas, or may take the effort to carry them to one of our RE:FORM boxes, in addition to dropping them off at fashion retailers collection boxes or designated points in your local community. If this is something that you currently do, well done!

But is it enough? 

We have been asking ourselves and want to encourage you to think about the following question too:  

Can we lift the weight of textile waste through recycling alone? 

You may know about the environmental benefits of textile recycling: it saves virgin fibers, reduces consumption of energy and water, and avoids piling up waste in landfills (latest report in the U.S. shows that at least 12.8 million tons of textile waste ends up in landfills each year; while in China, the number is more than doubled – 26 million tons to be precise).

China's Zhejiang province Textile Dye Pollution (Textile Dye being polluted into the river in China’s Zhejiang province Photo:

Perhaps that’s why you do it in the first place?

No one wants this to happen.
(No one wants this to happen. Photo:

An irretrievable problem

Unfortunately, the cold hard truth is: reusing and recycling won’t solve the problem.

The idea of ‘reusing’, ‘recovering’ and ‘recycling’ is a possibility with metals, which can be re-melted and change form many times without altering its chemical and physical qualities. However, for textiles made from various materials: animal, plant, mineral, synthetic, etc, this is unfortunately not as easy.

To start with, sorting out different garments is difficult. Modern-day clothing constitutes a range of mixes, including synthetic fibers such as nylon and polyester, which are essentially a type of plastic that requires different processing methods compared to natural materials like cotton, wool or linen. In terms of financial incentive, synthetic fibers unsurprisingly aren’t as valuable as cotton or wool, which is why they are often overlooked.

From a manufacturing perspective, in order to transform an old piece of cloth to new it has to be shredded into small pieces and turned into raw fibers. Mechanical shredding reduces the staple length of the fibers, which is the key attribute to determine textile strength and softness. As a result, these shredded fibers degrade in quality, and are usually used for making kitchen cloths, rugs, car insulations or seat fillings, etc, which is commonly referred to as ‘downcycling’ or ‘cascading’.

(Screenshot from the short documentary film UNRAVEL, showing the shredding process a factory in India)

You can also watch UNRAVEL, the short-documentary film (13-minutes) about how one factory in India deals with all the clothing waste they receive from different countries, by scanning the QR code below. 

How effectively do retailers recycle?

In 2013, customers of H&M, the world’s second largest clothing retailer, started seeing recycling boxes at its 3,800 stores worldwide – a global movement propelled by its pioneering garment collecting initiative.

Zara collection box

(Zara and H&M clothing collection boxed Photos: Zara and H&M)

Between then and November 2016, it is said to have collected almost 39,000 tons of garments, which appears to be a significant amount compared to its production size. The Guardian calculated and published that H&M is capable of pumping out 1,000 tons clothes in 2 days, but processing that much amount of waste would take 12 years.

For a company the size of H&M, accurately tracking progress can also be challenging. After scanning through H&M’s last two publicized Sustainability Reports we found a mismatch in the percentage recycled materials used in 2015 (PDF) and 2016 (PDF) – see images below taken from these reports. This leads us to beg the questions, what was the recycled material percentage used in 2015? 1% or 0.5%?

(Use of recycled textile form H&M’s 2015 and 2016 Sustainable Report)

In a small footnote next to the chart, we read: “Historical data has been updated using a new, more detailed system… Deviations are due to rounding effects.” While this is perhaps an honest mistake, misleading advertising is not.

H&M launched its first World Recycle Week in May 2016 featuring pop star M.I.A, in which it claims: “95% of textiles thrown away worldwide could get a second life”, but it failed to mention how few textiles did get a second life in general context or within their own practice.

Greenpeace, in a press release for their Detox My Fashion campaign, commented: “H&M’s Recycling Week is in reality a week of illusions since only 1% of collected clothing can be used as recycled fibers.”

It is worth noting that H&M is indeed trying to steer the industry into a greener and more sustainable one, their Global Change Award to reward innovations in the industry being one such example, but there is still plenty of space for improvement. What’s more, the well-intentioned efforts may well-become purchasing incentives, as Bloomberg commented, customers might even spend more since they get rewards and discount coupons to recycle their clothing and thus, waste more.

Testing the water with technology

Following H&M’s lead, other fashion retailers such as Zara, American Eagle Outfitters, The North Face, have also started collecting used garments,. In addition, a few jean brands have been researching new fiber recycling technologies.

As mentioned above, textile recycling usually uses degraded materials, which means the process involves ‘down cycling’. However, just last year, the Seattle-based start-up Evrnu is said to have developed a brand-new fiber dissolving technology that can help recycle clothes as easily as melting it.

(Evrnu’s fiber on spinner. Photo: Evrnu)

In June, 2016, Evrnu made its first jean prototype with Levi’s using approximately 5 discarded cotton shirts, which was described by Levi’s as a ‘breakthrough innovation’ in post-consumer recycling. Although the company has yet to use 100% recycled materials in the prototyping stage, it said that their practice uses 98% less water than virgin cotton products, and reduces CO2 emissions by 90% compared to standard polyester production.  Even chemicals are reused for dissolving, creating a solution where the recycling and manufacturing process can truly be turned into a closed loop.

Levi’s is not the brand testing new recycling technology. In the past few years, G Star Raw has focused on aquatic waste with its Raw for the Oceans line, and pledges to include recycled ocean plastic in all of their products in the near future. Meanwhile, designer brand AG jeans partnered up with Ozone Technology to reduce the amount of water and dye in the dying process, creating a dry dying process to save water and energy. More recently, Adidas has been making waves with their new shoe made from recovered ocean plastic.(G-Star RAW for the oceans campaign with Pharrel)

(G-Star RAW for the oceans campaign with Pharrel)

However, two immediate questions emerge on this front:

1.    Can and the companies and those that aspire to join them close the gap between hope and practice?
2.    Can technology catch up with the growing demand?

We will keep an eye out for answers to  these questions and keep you posted…

How you can help 

For consumers, the only chance is to take a step back and remember the three Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. For clothing, this means: buy less, buy better, buy ethical.

1. Buy what you need

If you participated in the 13-in-31 challenge to design your daily wardrobe with only 13 pieces for 31 days, you’ve probably figured out that you need much less clothing than you previously anticipated.

Minimalist Wardrobe(try a minimalist wardrobe Photo: Pinterest) 

The next time you see that shirt or dress on sale through the glass window, think whether it would end up becoming another ‘extra’ piece in your closet, and/or if you want to go into the store just because of the sale.

We are not asking you to wear what you are wearing for the rest of your life, but if you want to care about the environment, buy necessities and cherish them.

2. Pay for good quality

When you buy higher quality clothes, it is more likely that you are going to wear it for longer. A shirt that costs 100RMB gets worn out rather quickly if it’s made from 90% polyester, 10% cotton, and possibly poor-quality dyes. When you pay for a shirt that costs more, and is made from Fairtrade cotton and organic dyes, it will undoubtedly last longer.

Spending more time on making smart choices (read both price tag and material tag) will not only help you to reduce your cost of living, it is also helping the environment by creating a solution that recycling never could.

We should also hope to have more clothes with a story that goes further than the source or price tag.. Fashion revolution was recently running a campaign called #whomademyclothes

3. Support ethical brands 

In recent years many sustainable apparel companies have popped up in China to give you a chance to buy quality products and feel good about it. (See our partners from the 1331-challenge’s list of12 sustainable brands in Shanghai) Do what you can to get immersed in the world of sustainable fashion, but first remember: First buy less, then buy better and ethical.

1331 challenge(1331 Challenge)

If you find that you don’t need a piece of clothing anymore, think about how to reuse it. Give clothing that you don’t need to charities. Sell it or swap it. Refuse, where necessary – be it a discount voucher encouraging you to buy more clothes, a free t-shirt, or a canvas bag at an event. Repair your jeans or repurpose them in a creative way.

Lastly and most importantly, understand that recycling is not a solution – it is simply the last resort.

The above article was researched and written by Green Initiatives’ Community Volunteers Yaling Jiang & Nicolas Huppenbauer. Yaling works at ArcheX, an innovation agency, and is a regular contributor to Caixin, Sixth Tone, Nanfang People among others, she previously interned at the UN office in Vienna, and Fairtrade Foundation in London. She is also a founding member of Impact Hub Shanghai.

On why Yaling worked on this piece she says, “Girls love fast fashion brands – we fall for the price, the sale and accessible spinoffs from high fashion. I’ve been there. But it’s important for us (guys, too) to see where the source of the problem is, and make collective efforts to keep these big brands accountable; at the same time, I also want to shed light on new technology in the sphere- something that brings me optimism about the future of textile recycling.” 

Yaling Jiang can be reached at this email.

Nicolas holds a Bachelor in Environmental Engineering from TU Munich and is currently pursuing advanced studies in International Relations and Chinese at Fudan University, supported by the German National Academic Foundation. Beside his studies, he has worked for the Munich consulting firm sustainable AG and has volunteered for AIESEC in Germany and AFS Thailand.

On why Nicolas worked on this piece, he says, “I have the feeling a lot of money and time are wasted on solutions that aren’t really effective. I wanted to find out what’s the matter with recycling and the research for this article gave me a lot of new insights: Recycling is not all for nothing, but still, it’s not really an effective solution to the huge waste problem we have. I hope this article can make things clearer for our readers as well and maybe make more people interested in the economy behind our fashion and recycling industries.”

Nicolas can be reached at this email.