Just last year alone, our country produced 189,000 tonnes of textile waste, and only 4% were given a second life - that’s worrying. Faced with the problem of growing textile waste and a landfill that’s estimated to be fully filled by 2035, Singapore recently announced that it will be piloting its first ever textile recycling plant.
Many of us don’t actually see what happens to the waste we discard. Some may assume that recycling is a simple process and that the clothes they donate for recycling are always given a second life. That’s not quite true! There are various recycling methods, some with less environmental impact than the others, and usually not as straightforward as we think. Whether clothes do get recycled depends on many factors, and sometimes what you put in the recycling bin unfortunately goes straight into the landfill.
To help you understand recycling better (and to recycle better), we’ll look at the 4 common methods of textile recycling: mechanical recycling, resale, upcycling, and downcycling.
Mechanical recycling may be what many of us associate with recycling, which refers to a process of recycling the textile fabric back into fibres without the use of any chemicals. What happens is that these textile fabrics are shredded and carded multiple times to fully extract individual fibres from the fabric. The fibres are then spun back into new textiles.
This process is best for textiles made of non-blend fabrics, such as 100% cotton fabrics. Such fabrics are easier to be mechanically recycled as the fibres do not have to undergo as much processing to be separated.
The absence of chemicals in this process is also great because it is less pollutive to surrounding water bodies. However, fabric blends that are difficult to mechanically separate may be discarded, which is why our Tortoise apparels are created entirely with 100% organic cotton from fabric to thread (no polyester labels!) to give them their best shot at circularity.
Mechanical recycling does not come without its own carbon footprint (although typically less energy-intensive than producing from raw materials), so it’s usually best to reuse as much as possible before that. For the resale method, textiles that are still in good condition are resold, and ideally, this would prolong its life cycle before it heads for the mechanical recycling plant.
Some fashion brands and textile recycling companies collect our unwanted textiles – clothes, bedsheets, etc – and sell them in large bales to less developed countries such as those in Africa and Asia, where they are then resold in street markets and the likes to locals. This is usually the case for the clothes that we in Singapore donate or recycle.
There are a few downsides to this method: firstly, there are ethical and socioeconomic issues when it comes to donating secondhand clothes to less developed countries, such as reinforcing income gaps and unequal power relations. Secondly, less developed countries may lack the capabilities, resources, and infrastructure to correctly manage and recycle these textiles at the end of their life cycle. Waste collection is irregular in some areas, and regulations and laws are often lax where burning of trash and open dumping are allowed. Without the means to handle textile waste safely at their end-of-life, this would only mean that we are shifting the problems of pollution, overflowing landfills and carbon emissions from us to less developed countries.
As good as our intentions may be, the clothes that we donate may not necessarily end up where they are intended to go or do, and could worsen the socioeconomic conditions of people at the receiving end. Before you throw something away, or even before you decide to make a purchase, try giving your decision a second thought (or a couple more).
Upcycling refers to the transformation of textile waste which are of lower value into higher value products. This may sometimes involve utilising pre-consumer waste such as fabric offcuts, or post-consumer waste such as used garments to create new products.
Many fashion brands have established takeback and resale programs for their own products, where they clean and repair secondhand clothes from their own brands, then return them on the clothes rack again. This might also involve some degrees of refashioning or refurbishment.
At Tortoise, we too have our very own upcycling system! Under the Carrot Credits Recycling System, you can return your worn Tortoise apparel in exchange for Carrot Credits (which can be used to offset your next order!), and they are upcycled to serve their next purpose wherever possible.
Upcycling is a great way to extend the life of any material before it is regarded as waste. This type of recycling does not guarantee that these materials will be used indefinitely, but they do keep our discards out of the landfills for as long as possible!
Downcycling of textiles refers to a process where discarded textiles are recycled into something of lower value. Similar to upcycling, this process is essentially repurposing discarded textile. Discarded textiles are shredded into yarn and then used to create lower-valued textiles, either made entirely from recycled materials or blended into a mix of virgin and recycled yarn. Examples of downcycling include recycling of used textiles into non-woven textiles, building insulation, rags, or even carpet padding.
Downcycling is an alternative solution when textile is deemed to be unfit for mechanical recycling. This method is considered open-loop, basically meaning that the materials are hardly reused more than once or twice, but it still serves a useful purpose of prolonging their lifespans by reusing rather than manufacturing from raw materials for industries that need them. While closed-loop systems are more ideal, this method nevertheless helps the textile recycling industry to profit from selling these materials.
No method of recycling is perfect
Every method of textile recycling comes with its own pros and cons, and its feasibility differs according to different businesses and countries’ know-hows, systems and capabilities. For instance, sending clothes for resale in developing countries may seem more ideal than mechanical recycling as they can be worn again before actually being mechanically recycled, but the lack of supporting structures and processes in these countries may actually mean that these clothes enter the landfill sooner than intended.
On top of that, when the messaging behind recycling is not properly communicated to consumers, the outcome may even be counter-productive. Take upcycling for example: when fast fashion brands market products made from recycled materials, it can even encourage consumers to buy more, which eventually introduces more waste into the system anyway.
Circularity is a key part of Tortoise, and we love to see resources being used to their best potential. For us, recycling is best when it gives more than just a second, third or fourth life to textiles, while minimising its environmental and social costs.
As much as we wish that 100% of recycling efforts go towards bettering the health of the planet and people, there are practical concerns like feasibility and cost that limit how much can be achieved. Barriers, such as contamination, lack of recycling knowledge and infrastructure can lead to less-than-ideal outcomes, but we don't count on - nor believe in - perfection. Every step we take may seem all too slow and insignificant, but collectively, we’re actually taking billions of steps every day towards positive change.