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Is recycling the new organic?

The recycling market has made great progress. The retail trade and the industry have joined forces. Initiatives and pilot projects have resulted in functional business models. New technologies, such as RFID chips, are being used and are ready for serial production. An overview by Jana Kern.

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Adidas, Footlocker, Reno, Sport 2000, Esprit, H&M, Adler, Kmart, The North Face, Jack&Jones and Intimissimi – all are taking part. But, for a change, we are not talking about the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. We are talking about I:CO, an evaluation system for apparel and shoes launched by Switzerland’s I Collect AG.

On hunters and collectors
What for one is the I:Counter, is ‘Bring me back’ for the next. In the last analysis, however, they are referring to the same thing: old clothes and shoes are collected and then put into a recycling system. This benefits not only the environment but also customers because they receive a discount for every article returned, which is then deducted from the price of a new article of clothing or shoes.

At present, there are 36 companies with 3,000 branches that collect old clothes in cooperation with I:CO. “Some companies are, however, still in the pilot phase. In a year, there will be 20,000 collection points. But that is only a fraction of the target we have set ourselves”, says I:CO CEO Stephan Wiegand. His aim is for 115,000 participating branches worldwide. That I:CO is well on the way to achieving this is shown by the numerous new names on the list of partners, e.g., C&A, Puma, Calzedonia and Bestseller Group, which have been added this year.

150 million new textiles and shoes a year
The potential behind this is not inconsiderable given that 150 million tonnes of textiles and shoes are sold year in, year out. Today, these articles end up on the rubbish tip and many people, not just Stephan Wiegand, are trying to find ways to solve this problem. New eco labels are flooding onto the market. They no longer talk about organic products but introduce concepts, such as new recycling or up-cycling. Truck tarpaulins are made into laptop bags, unwanted cuddly toys into carpets, old articles of apparel are turned into new clothing and intelligent patterns developed that result in zero waste. Indeed, almost every eco-fashion collection is characterised by materials such as recycled polyester and recycled cotton.

Reduce, repair, reuse, recycle, reimagine
New from old – if you take a closer look, you will soon see that recycling means more than just this. Patagonia – who else – can undoubtedly be singled out as one of the pioneers. For years, the Californian outdoor clothing company has taken a broader view of recycling than many others and still does even today. Six years ago, it founded the Common Threads Initiative, which involves five steps: reduce, repair, reuse, recycle and reimagine. By 2011, 12,000 items of clothing had been repaired. Since 2005, 45 tonnes of Patagonia textiles have been returned for recycling and used to make 34 tonnes of new clothing. On EBay, Patagonia runs its own shop for reselling used articles of clothing, to ensure that they are worn as long as possible and don’t reach the rubbish dump until they are really worn out. The company also created a sensation with ‘Don't buy this jacket’, its campaign to promote going without. Incidentally, Patagonia launched the first jacket made of recycled polyester in 1993.

Originally, the aim of the Common Threads Recycling programme was to recycle everything by 2010. However, this proved impossible, even for a pioneer such as Patagonia. Last year, the company announced: “The five years have flown past. Have we reached our objective? Unfortunately, not entirely. For the 2010 autumn / winter collection, we succeeded in making 71 % of our clothing (or 63 % of all styles) recyclable (excluding rucksacks and bags). We collected 12 tonnes of clothing within the framework of our recycling programme; 6 tonnes of which have already been recycled.”

Up and down
But what does recycled actually mean? For the innovative minds of the sector, shredding jeans to make insulation material is not a future-oriented model. Instead, the aim must be to shift from down-cycling to up-cycling. Or, even better, to closed product cycles, e.g., jeans are made into jeans and into jeans again and again. But is this possible with cotton? Not in the long run because the more it is recycled, the shorter the fibres become and, therefore, the greater the instability of the product. Thus, the aim must be to make a soft-shell jacket out of a soft-shell jacket. But this is a question that is still causing expert to pull their hair out.

The European Outdoor Group, an association of companies from the sport-article and outdoor-apparel industry, recently initiated an end-of-life group. And Puma has founded the Creative Sustainability Lab in cooperation with Cradle-to-Cradle. The aim of the German company is to develop recyclable and compostable products whereby the Puma approach begins in the design phase. Shoes and clothing made in accordance with the new concept are expected to reach the market soon.

From earth to earth?
For experts, the way back into the technical product cycle is more interesting than that from the wardrobe to the compost heap. The problem is the numerous different materials used to make a piece of clothing, which must firstly be separated before they can be up-cycled. Only then can ‘old’ be turned into new raw materials. Thus, a breathable outdoor jacket with membrane, zips, buttons, rivets, drawstrings and bonded seams soon becomes a seemingly insoluble puzzle.

The answer lies in innovative technologies. For example, I:CO has just developed a chip that makes it possible to incorporate information about the various materials used in a product via RFID. The data can be read using a scanner. At the same time, scenarios have been developed to show what could be made out of the individual raw materials, who would be the right production partner for this and what an optimised logistics chain between I:CO, the product partner and the trade would look like. This is not just a vision because the scanner already exists and I:CO is working on potential product scenarios with other companies. The aim is to have an appropriate model in each product group by 2020.

Also ready for series production is the Textiles4Textiles sorting plant, which is designed to simplify the waste collection and sorting. Working on a research project within the framework of the ECO Innovative Programme of the European Union, Textiles4Textiles invented a machine that automatically identifies and sorts products made of different materials, e.g., cotton to cotton, wool to wool and polyester to polyester. The project was concluded a few months ago. The machine exists, functions and is now to be commercialised.

Will recycling be the new organic?
And will recycling now become the new organic? There is much to be said for this, especially given that the initiatives mentioned are just some of many. The market is more dynamic than ever before and things that would have been inconceivable only a few years ago are reality today. At the same time, many questions remain to be answered and many problems to be solved. In the final analysis, however, it is the customer who will decide on the future of recycling. As Wiegand says, “It is up to us consumers whether we return our articles of clothing to the retail trade and thus retain them in a closed system or whether we throw them away.” Although this is only one of many aspects, it is undoubtedly a decisive one.

Jana Kern