Chemical recycling – A solution for Europe’s waste textile mountain?

The RESYNTEX process aims to provide a valuable route for the ca.9.35M tpa of waste textiles currently incinerated or landfilled in the EU. Our market study included an in-depth quantification and description of the EU textile waste available as inputs.

Textile production accounts for 10% of the world’s carbon emissions and the sector is the second most polluting in the world. The responsible treatment of textiles at their end of life is important to prevent further negative environmental impact. Textiles are a problematic waste stream, and outside of well-established reuse markets and capacity limits for textile recycling processes, there remains a large proportion of low-value materials for which there is no market pull to utilise. Current treatment options for these unrecyclable textiles are incineration and landfill, where - at best - a miniscule fraction of the energy used in their production is recovered. At worst, textiles enter landfill where they remain for decades and emit methane gas, a well-known contributor to global warming.

In a recent market study carried out on behalf of the RESYNTEX consortium, Oakdene Hollins quantified the textile waste being landfilled or incinerated in the EU at 9.35 million tonnes. Blended fabrics present significant problems for high-value recycling, as it is not possible to separate blended fibres by using mechanical processing and previous attempts at chemical recycling have proven both to be impractical and to raise environmental concerns. A potential answer to this is the development of innovative chemical recycling technologies for textile materials - such as RESYNTEX, an international project led by SOEX and part-funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme.

This project, which Oakdene Hollins is delighted to have been part of, is addressing some of the technological barriers associated with the chemical recycling of blended textiles, and low quality textiles in particular. The RESYNTEX project is aimed at providing a valorisation route for the residual textilewaste . Collectors and sorters increasingly need to find alternative solutions to this problematic waste. To achieve this, the consortium is aiming to build a four-stage pilot plant to extract proteins from animal fibres, glucose (for conversion into bio-ethanol) from cellulosic fibres; polyamide oligomers from polyamide, and PET monomers from polyester. The technological challenges faced are significant.

From a sustainability perspective, it is important that garments which are suitable for reuse are not recycled as a first option. It is well known that reuse reduces the overall life cycle impact of a textile product significantly more than recycling and therefore should be considered as the primary option, followed by recycling if reuse is not possible. Our detailed mapping of the waste streams containing residual textiles will help the consortium identify the accessible residual textiles most suited to the plant's input needs.

A summary of the report produced by Oakdene Hollins is available here.  The full report will be available in due course through the RESYNTEX consortium. In the meantime, if you have any questions or comments, please get in touch with Dr Kate Riley.

Simon Strick