Recycling, transformation and reuse of waste in the Fashion SystemThe analysis of the end of life of products, considered as “those activities necessary for the reuse of a product at the end of its useful life” (Parlikad and Macfarlane, 2004), is part of the eco-efficiency concept expressed in the “Cradle to Cradle” manifesto by McDonough and Braungart: “We will have to learn to imitate nature’s highly effective cradle-to-cradle nutrient flow and metabolism, in which the very concept of waste does not exist”.
It is clear to see that it has become necessary to build a unified collection “system” for identifying new destinations and new treatments, and therefore new food markets. The importance of controlling and managing waste is clear, but we must be aware that it still seems impossible to completely eliminate waste. There will always be unplanned waste at the origin of production, and therefore the end of life of a product must be treated in the most functional way possible.
Three are the small principles at the basis of this system are: reuse of textile products, reduction of materials used, and extension of the life cycle of each product. Everyone is involved in this challenge, from the producer to the supplier, from the designer to the retail seller, from the consumer to the charity organisation.
Life Cycle Assessment is an important tool for the analysis of the environmental impact of a product throughout its entire life cycle, from the extraction of the raw materials to the production, transport, use right up to its disposal. The LCA is considered the eco-design tool par excellence.
The processes involved in the life cycle of each product component and its packaging are identified at the start of the Life Cycle Assessment process is. Subsequently, data is collected on the resources used for each of the processes, such as energy and water (inputs) and on the emissions into the water, air and soil (outputs). The impacts on the environment (e.g. eutrophication, ozone depletion, acidification, toxicity, etc.) are calculated based on the resources used and on the emissions. The LCA allows studying every aspect of each component of a product or service, investigating the complexity of its entire life cycle. This makes it possible to identify the most impactful processes and to have an indication of the problems that need to be addressed as a priority. The LCA can therefore be used to improve an existing product or to guide the decision-making process in the creation of new products.
The results of an LCA study can be used in several ways: to compare different alternatives for the same product (e.g. materials, packaging), to assess where the greatest impacts lie and set priorities for the actions needed to reduce the amount of waste and scraps, and also to choose new possibilities for recycling and reuse.
It must be said that, in addition to the LCA, the impact of a product can be assessed with different techniques such as Life Cycle Costing, which is used to assess the costs of a product’s life cycle, or the S-LCA, which considers the social consequences related to the phases of extraction of raw materials, transport, production, use and end-of-life.
Since the three pillars of sustainability concern all three of these aspects (environmental, economic and social), a complete and global view of the life cycle can be obtained through the LCSA (Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment), a new method for the overall assessment of all the environmental, economic and social impacts that occur during the life cycle of production processes.
The life of an item of clothing begins with the fibres used to make its fabrics, and then moves onto the design, manufacturing, distribution, and sale, ending with its use by the consumer/buyer. Once the product has been discarded, it is disposed of by its user. The process of “downcycling” delays the journey of clothing items to the landfill. The products are recycled and transformed into other materials and/or products of lower quality and value. The transformation steps are increasingly shorter due to the continuous lowering of the quality and value; therefore, when the product can no longer be recycled, it is sent to landfill. However, when consumers decide to give their clothes to other subjects (friends, relatives, organisations, etc.), or put them on sale in second-hand markets, they actually enter, as we have already seen, a new life cycle. Thus begins a “second life” where the cycle resumes from the distribution phase to move along another phase of use and, potentially, comes back to life in other new cycles if preserved and repaired with the right care and attention.
Instead, upcycling is when a product is transformed into another product of equal or higher quality or better value than the initial product. In particular, in the case of the fashion industry, existing garments or textiles can be disassembled and transformed into new products, starting a new life cycle, which this time starts with the design phase, and extends along the entire life cycle, making many more people interact. The term upcycling refers to the transformation of waste into a new fashion item through creativity. First coined in 1994 by the journalist Reiner Pilz and then made official by Gunter Pauli in his 1997 book of the same name, the concept of upcycling is well defined and above all very different from the more consolidated term of “recycling” which instead describes an industrial process of transforming waste.
The most complete example of an end-of-life model is the recycling of products in “closed-loop” mode (closed loop management). In the specific case of fashion products, a virtuous circular process is established that comes from the fibre and returns to the fibre. This model comes directly from the “Cradle to Cradle” philosophy developed in 2002 by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their publication of the same name, which hypothesises a world where all waste and scraps can become “food” for new life cycles, as occurs in nature. Of course, in order to make this possible, we need an approach for designing systems that can adapt industrial models to nature, namely, to convert the production processes by assimilating the materials used into natural elements, which must therefore regenerate themselves. Industrial processes must preserve and enhance nature’s ecosystems and biological systems, while maintaining production cycles in a sort of “technological metabolism”, where all the other post-use materials must flow in order to be reused in the production processes. Among the companies willing to rethink production and to challenge themselves based on “cradle to cradle” criteria are Nike and Patagonia (the latter through the “Common Threads” programme aimed at collecting old piles of polyester clothes for closed-loop recycling of polyester into new fibres suitable for creating new clothing items). This model is not limited to industrial design and manufacturing, but can be applied to different aspects of society – such as urban environments, buildings, the economy, and social systems – which all together constitute a system of “life-cycle development”.
Another thorny issue is programmed (or planned) obsolescence, which defines the useful life of a product limited to a fixed period, which becomes, after a certain time, useless or simply “out of fashion”, so as to justify the entry into the market of a new model (also called “perceived obsolescence”), a factor that occurs particularly in the fashion industry. Slow fashion is the sustainable response to programmed obsolescence of fast fashion, which pushes a consumer to change the shape and colour of clothes before the garment is worn. Especially in fashion, rather than planning obsolescence, it seems increasingly appropriate – and certainly more “sustainable” – to prevent it. According to many analysts, the limitations of this linear system can be solved by transforming it into a circular system, based on environmental sustainability, green economy, fair trade, closed-loop production, local economies, renewable energy.
The expression “circular economy” refers to trade in materials and waste disposed of by one company that can be absorbed by another company, changing their status from “waste” to “resource.” The reuse/recycling of textile products at the end of their life, characterised by multiple applications and methods of product transformation, can be an important element in the direction of sustainability of the fashion production process. Recycled textiles are used in a wide range of sectors: for example, in the production of cleaning products, the creation of carpets and mats, or padding for furniture and mattresses, as well as insulating panels for buildings. A series of semi-finished products are then produced from regenerated fibres, such as yarns for weaving or knitting, fabrics for clothing or for technical and industrial uses (geotextiles and fabrics for furniture, footwear for agricultural use) and non-woven fabrics, (such as wadding and felts) following different processes. For example, while waste and residues from manufacturing operations are subject to fraying, carding and weaving processes and are then reused as new regenerated fibres, garments and accessories not intended for reuse because they are too ruined, dirty or old are milled and used to make new products.
Processes that act by choosing resources with minimum harmfulness in all phases of the product also play a fundamental role in “end-of-life” management, as do materials and energy resources with no or minimum toxicity, renewable and biocompatible materials, and renewable energy sources.
Re-manufacturing technologies can play a key role in improving the sustainability of industrial production because they allow introducing new components to replace deteriorated or damaged components. In this case, it is possible to use obsolete products, preserving the parts that can support a maintenance process. Advanced material separation and crushing technologies for the recovery of rare and commercially valuable secondary raw materials are also strategic for this purpose. The challenge is to create a product that is easy and quick to disassemble at the end of its life, using appropriate connecting elements, locating non-recyclable parts, avoiding inserts or reinforcements that are difficult to separate (processes that are more applicable in the footwear and accessories sectors).
For companies that must recycle their textile waste, the greatest difficulty lies in the recycling of production waste, since it often consists of very different fabrics; for this reason, some companies try to reduce the amount of waste materials, refining the cutting phase as well as the production phases. Several processes can influence the use and planning of the cutting phase to reduce scrap. The shape, edge and position of the stitching are elements that, following precise processes, can lead to the reduction of waste. For example, the selection of fabrics with symmetrical patterns allows them to be easily cut, thus reducing fabric waste, while computerised design and cutting techniques, compared to manual cutting, help to reduce the amount of material used and the number of garments discarded because they do not satisfy the manufacturer’s needs.
The destination of a product at the end of its life therefore clearly depends on the characteristics of the materials and fibres making up the fabrics. For this reason, research and innovation focus strongly on the penetration of the concept of sustainability to the field of fibres used in technical processes. In fact, the choice of fibres – natural or manmade – is not only crucial for the destination of a product, but can have serious impacts on the ecosystem: this can depend on the impact of the cultivation and breeding (in the case of cotton, wool and other natural fibres), on the use of non-renewable resources (such as oil to produce nylon or polyester fibres) or on the distances that raw materials have to travel before they reach the facilities where they will be treated. In general, yarns and fabrics made with fibres obtained from organic farming, fair trade and ethically made products treated with natural and biodegradable substances can be considered “eco-compatible”. The characteristics of biodegradability and recyclability clearly allow textiles at the end of their life to re-enter the market much easier.
Design plays an important role in the life cycle of fashion products. In fact, the most important decisions regarding the future of each product are made in this stage, including those regarding its “end-of-life”. Fashion designers are increasingly faced with crucial choices, as some products can be designed for end-of-life disassembly or closed-loop recycling, while other products can be designed to last over time.
Following the principles of sustainability, designers must choose materials that are easy to recycle and reuse such as polyester (100% recyclable), avoiding materials that are more difficult to recycle because, for example, they contain dyes or mixes of other fibres (cotton is one of these) and must try to extend the time of use of fashion products: the “delayed end-of-life” factor is a key element in preventing the increase of textile waste.
Eco-design focuses on the use of easy to recycle materials, and on the use of local resources to reduce transport in order to propose a design that already takes into account a product’s end of life.
(source: THE “END OF LIFE” OF PRODUCTS IN THE FASHION INDUSTRY – By Clemente Tartaglione and Sara Corradini with research contributions by Gianmarco Guazzo, Mauro Di Giacomo)