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Perspectives: Recycling of synthetic materials

Closing the loop

They are flexible, tear and abrasion-resistant and absorb hardly any moisture: man-made fibres made of synthetic polymers are more sought-after than ever before. They are used everywhere from the fashion industry to the automobile industry. But the raw material used to make them, crude oil, is in limited supply. The industry is working flat out to find alternatives.

September 2018

The worldwide demand for fibres is growing so steadily that only man-made fibres can keep up. In the past few decades, the production of synthetic fibres has continuously increased. But covering the world’s textile needs without man-made fibres is unthinkable – last year they accounted for 75% of the world’s total fibre production.[1] In 2017, the global production of synthetic man-made fibres was 64.9 million tonnes, while the production of man-made fibres made from plant-based cellulose was just 6.7 million tonnes.[2] The fact that they keep their shape, are tear-resistant and also have a high stretch make the fibres indispensable, for breathable textiles in the leisure and outdoor sector, for example. And there is also a need for technical fabrics that are water-repellent and robust in the automobile and home textiles industries.

But there is a fundamental problem: the basis of synthetic man-made fibres is crude oil, a finite resource. The fossil fuel is non-renewable, meaning that in the coming decades, according to predictions from Germany’s Federal Institute for Geo-Sciences and Raw Materials, it will no longer be possible to meet the steadily rising demand.[3] The industry needs to find alternative production methods in order to meet long-term demands. This is also becoming increasingly necessary from an environmental policy viewpoint, as despite the shortage of resources, according to the German Environment Agency just under 30% of plastics are recycled. The majority is incinerated to generate energy or simply dumped. And every year, up to 500,000 tonnes of plastic from the EU makes its way into the oceans.[4] So much plastic in our oceans is resulting in problems like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a collection of plastic, floating waste halfway between Hawaii and California, which is four times the size of Germany [5] or twice the size of Texas [6]  and already damaging the ecosystem.

The EU Commission wants to halt this development so last May it proposed a ban on single-use products made of plastic such as cotton buds, plastic plates and drinking straws. Member States will also be obliged to collect 90% of single-use plastic drinks bottles and recycle them. Another strategy for a more sustainable future, which the Commission presented in January, is to make all plastic packaging on the EU market recyclable by 2030. And it pointed out that 85% of all waste in the world’s oceans is plastic. [7] This worrying state of affairs is also affecting the textile and fashion industry.

Patagonia recognised the need to act back in 1993 and was the first outdoor company to produce its fleece clothing from recycled polyester. Starting with the recycling of plastic bottles, the American company also processes unusable production waste and turns discarded garments into new fibres. In cooperation with Prima Loft, a leading provider of high-performance insulations and fabrics, Patagonia also developed a thermal insulation material consisting of 55% recycled post-consumer waste. Using this filling will save more than two million plastic bottles in the first year alone.[8]

The Italian Aquafil Group also turns waste into yarns. For their Econyl yarns, first, nylon waste is collected in cooperation with global initiatives. This nylon waste includes end products like fishing nets as well as industrial production waste. In Slovenia, the different types of recycled material are cleaned and shredded, and then, using the special Econyl Regeneration System, the nylon is regenerated. In contrast to mechanical recycling, a sustainable chemical process enables all foreign substances to be removed and the nylon to be converted back into the primary raw material. This guarantees a 100% virgin quality that makes the nylon recyclable in an endless regeneration process – but without compromising the quality. And that’s where it comes full circle: products that are no longer of use to customers can be returned to the regeneration system.[9]

According to the manufacturer, this recycling procedure means it saves 70,000 barrels of crude oil and prevents 57,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions. In comparison to standard nylon, the impact on global warming would be reduced by 80%. [10] The recycled fabric is produced using a lot less energy and is in no way inferior to virgin nylon in terms of quality. Econyl’s customers include both fair fashion brands like Bleed Clothing as well as fast-fashion retailer H&M. And increasing numbers of the fashion industry’s global players are recognising the importance of an environmentally conscious image. German sportswear brand Adidas recently announced that it will only be using recycled polyester until 2024.[11] A step that could influence the entire fashion industry. [12] 

And how the vision of a recyclable fashion industry can be turned into a reality will be evident once again at the NEONYT tradeshow from 15-17 January 2019. The platform, which is specialised in sustainable fashion, is merging the fairs Greenshowroom and Ethical Fashion Show Berlin under a new name. Last July, a large number of labels that use recycled fabrics were represented – including Bleed Clothing. Whether swimwear made of fishing nets by Margaret and Hermione or sportswear made of ocean waste by Ecoalf – the event gave visitors a taster of what the future of fashion might bring. This was also clear during the FASHIONSUSTAIN conference format that was taking place at the same time. Under the slogan “Jump into the future!” industry-relevant speakers and international shoe labels discussed the need to think in a networked way and use more innovative recycled materials to produce their goods in the future.[13]

But recycled synthetic fibres aren’t only exciting for the fashion industry, there is also a great demand coming from the automobile industry. BMW used Econyl Nylon for the foot mats of an electric car, for example.[14] At the Techtextil trade fair from 14-17 May 2019, an entire segment, “Oekotech”, will be dedicated to environmentally friendly solutions. From aerospace to construction, medicine and sports – the varied uses of textiles make resource-saving options indispensable in the long term. And this is why new technologies for recycling methods will be presented at Texprocess, which is taking place at the same time.

The interior sector is also shifting its focus onto sustainability and recycling: during last January’s edition of the Heimtextil tradeshow in Frankfurt am Main, yarns made of nylon waste were also presented at the Carpet by Heimtextil exhibition, clearly showing that the hard-wearing yarns – as rugs or carpets, for example – can offer a sustainable solution for the interior sector.[15] And in 2017, sun protection manufacturer MHZ added blinds and panel curtains made of 50% ocean plastic to its fabric collection.[16] At the next edition of Heimtextil from 8-11 January 2019, even more sustainable innovations are expected on an even larger area as the “Healthy Home” theme will inevitably include environmentally friendly products. [17]

With regard to the scarcity of resources and acute environmental problems, alternatives to conventional synthetic fibres are more in demand than ever before. Companies that act now and already start looking for recyclable options now will play a decisive role in shaping the future.

[1] Industrievereinigung Chemiefasern, /
[2]Industrievereinigung Chemiefasern,
[3]Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe,



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