Reviewing our recycling assumptions

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In our efforts to reduce our environmental impacts we often make assumptions about the tacit value of ideas and activities. Recycling must always be beneficial, surely? But when it comes to the researchers of the T2C team assumptions simply aren’t good enough.

 

In a recently published academic article, Dr Gustav Sandin Albertsson of T2C partner RISE and Professor Greg Peters of Chalmers take a closer look at what we really know about the environmental pros and cons of textile reuse and recycling. Here Gustav outlines the key takeaways from the research.

 

A project like Trash-2-Cash, which aims to develop new fabrics from recycled textiles, rests on the assumption that textile recycling is a good thing; for saving resources and for the environment. Circulating textiles instead of incinerating or putting them in landfill is intuitively a sound way of managing materials. But as a researcher with an appetite for calculating the environmental impact of stuff, intuition is not good enough. I want to know the facts: Is textile recycling worthwhile from an environmental point of view? And what should we think about when designing new recycling systems?

What we do and what others have already done

In Trash-2-Cash we do life cycle assessments, LCA in short, to make sure the materials and design concepts we develop indeed contribute to less environmental degradation. LCA calculates the environmental impact of a product or a service, from its “cradle” where natural resources are extracted, to its “grave” where it’s disposed of. Before embarking on yet another LCA study of textile recycling, we wanted to know what has been done before – and as no one had ever done a systematic review of this, we had to do it ourselves. We found 41 studies, including ones on textile reuse, covering different kinds of materials, and recycling and reuse routes.

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Recycling is good; reuse is better

The 41 studies provide strong support for claims about the environmental benefits of textile reuse and recycling, and that reuse is better than recycling. But they also expose instances in which reuse and recycling do not reduce environmental impact. When the so-called replacement factor is too low, which means the recycling or reuse does not lead to enough reduction of new materials, but rather adds to a growing market. Or when recycling or reuse relies too much on extra transportation, or when the recycling itself uses too many chemicals or energy. And as many combinations of materials and recycling routes have never been studied – most of the territory remains unexplored – we must be cautious about too generalised assumptions about textile recycling.

It’s a Nordic thing

Looking at the literature, textile recycling and reuse – or rather the study of its environmental consequences – seems to be mainly a European interest. 73% of these studies were conducted in Europe. The interest is particularly strong in the Nordic countries. Looking at studies written in the English language only, a mere three studies were on the US context, whereas 7 studies were Swedish – although the former country not only has English as the native language but is also 30 times larger population-wise.

Climate change in focus – some environmental problems disregarded

There are many environmental problems that could be relevant to consider, both to see the impact of the recycling itself and to see the gains of recycling versus not recycling. Water use, energy use, climate impact, chemical issues, biodiversity loss, to name a few. Still, many studies consider climate impact and not more than one or two other impacts (image below). So many benefits of recycling – and perhaps also some drawbacks – are seldom or never studied. For example, the reduced use of water, fertilisers and pesticides of less cotton cultivation – a likely consequence of reusing and recycling clothes – have barely been considered. Here LCA experts can do a much better work.

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The path forward

Now we know that projects like Trash-2-Cash are worthwhile to pursue, but we also know we must watch our step, to make sure we are moving in the right direction and avoid pitfalls. We now know the knowledge we currently have and have identified the gaps in that knowledge that we must try and fill. We know what we are good at and we know what we can be better at.

 

Read Greg and Gustav’s article “Environmental impact of textile reuse and recycling – A review” in full here.