Recycling polyester or cotton: what’s really behind the labels on our clothes ?

Recycling polyester or cotton: what’s really behind the labels on our clothes ?

La plupart des déchets textiles usagés sont jetés ou incinérés, seuls 22% sont collectés pour être réutilisés ou recyclés – essentiellement en chiffons, rembourrages ou isolants. grinvalds/Getty Images

Let's take a fashionista who is sensitive to the environment. When she buys a skirt or pants, it's recycled cotton or polyester, and when it's worn out, she throws them in a textile waste bin, certain that they will be recycled again.

Convinced of making an eco-friendly gesture, this customer probably doesn't know it but she is completely wrong. Because, 93% of the recycled materials in our clothes come "from plastic bottles, not from old clothes", explains Urska Trunk in Brussels , campaign director of the NGO Changing Markets. Oil then.


In stores, labels "recycled material"are flourishing but in reality, the expensive technology which makes it possible to recycle a thread into a thread remains embryonic at the global level. "Less than 1% of the fabrics that make up our clothes are recycled for make new ones", the European Commission told AFP.

In Europe, all textile waste represents 12.6 million tonnes per year (including 5.2 million clothes and shoes, the rest being made up of mattresses, carpets and other furniture textiles), according to the Commission. Most used textile waste is thrown away or incinerated, only 22% is collected for reuse or recycling – mainly into rags, padding or insulation.

Clothing recycling is "much more complex than glass or paper", explains to AFP the Austrian manufacturer of textile fibers from wood Lenzing. Used clothing must be sorted by material and color, then freed from its "hard spots" (zips, buttons…). Finally, we must rule out what is not recyclable, such as certain fibers or fabrics composed of more than two materials.

However, this type of operation has not yet passed the industrial stage. This technology "is in its infancy", says Urska Trunk.

Plastic bottles

The parade for stamping your “good for the planet” clothes is the recycling of bottles made with PET (polyethylene terephthalate) into polyester fibers ). The technology, well mastered, is the only one truly exploited on a large scale.

In this huge H&M in the center of Paris, more and more clothes feature a water green label "recycled material". In 2023, 79% of the polyester used in collections came from recycled materials. The group aims to reach 100% by 2025.

Customers interviewed by AFP seem indifferent but the Swedish fast-fashion brand is making an effort. Recycled PET "(allows) the industry to reduce its dependence on virgin polyester from fossil fuels in the short term", the group told AFP.

How do brands do it ? They collect the "glitter" of plastic from the mechanical recycling of bottles then manufacture the fiber in their own factories, explains Lauriane Veillard, policy manager on chemical recycling at Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) in Brussels, to AFP.

"Circular pitch"

"Let's be clear, this is not about circularity" : industrialists traffic jams and environmental defense associations have nevertheless warned. In an open letter to the European Parliament, they denounced in March 2023 "a worrying trend" of the fashion sector "to make ecological declarations linked to the use of recycled materials" from their bottles. Because "if these bottles had not been used to make polyester, they would in fact have made… other plastic bottles, recalled last March a study by the French so-called ethical brand Loom.

However, if a PET bottle can be recycled five or six times into another bottle, a T-shirt or a skirt made of recycled polyester "will never be able to be recycled again", recalls Ms Trunk, part of the discussions around the EU framework directive on waste. Recycled polyester is often remanufactured with chemical components and elastane, prized for its elasticity but which prevents recycling.

Not counting the'"energy and materials" needed to transport, sort, wash, grind, melt etc… down to the filament, recalls Loom. "From manufacturing to recycling, it's: water pollution, air pollution, soil pollution, in short, even recycled polyester is not a miracle solution", says Jean-Baptiste Sultan, consultant at Carbone 4.

NGOs are demanding that the textile industry stop using this material which in 2021 represented 54% of fiber production, according to Textile Exchange. Recycling cotton is not the right option either: the transformed fiber is of lower quality and to hold up, it will often have to be woven with other materials which also become difficult to recycle.

Carbon footprint

So what happens to our fashionista's used skirt and pants ? In 2019, 46% of EU textile waste ended up in Africa on second-hand markets or more often in landfills open air", admits the European Environment Agency (EEA). The practice is widely denounced by environmental defense organizations, as in Ghana.

"A regulation on waste shipments" adopted in November now targets "to ensure, among other things, that EU waste exports are intended for recycling and not for disposal", the European Commission told AFP. Also in 2019, 41% of European textile waste went to Asia in "dedicated economic zones where it is sorted and processed", largely to Pakistan, continues the' AEE. According to NGOs interviewed by AFP, real "hubs" textile sorting and recycling are developing in this South Asian country as well as in Bangladesh, often in “Export Processing Zones” (Export Processing Zone).

The waste appears "to be recycled locally, mainly transformed into industrial rags or padding, or re-exported, either for recycling in other countries Asian, or for reuse in Africa", concludes a February 2023 study by the EEA. But the Agency recognizes "a lack of consistent data on the quantities and fate of used textiles" in Europe.< /p>

According to Paul Roeland of the NGO Clean Clothes Campaign, EPZs are especially "known to be 'lawless' enclaves, where even the low labor standards of Pakistan and India are not respected.< /em> Such import-export operations also have an environmental impact. "Sending clothing to countries with low labor costs for manual sorting is a horror in terms of carbon footprint", underlines Marc Minassian, sales director France at Pellenc ST, at the cutting edge of optical sorting for recycling.


As it stands, textile recycling is “a myth,” says Lisa Panhuber of Greenpeace. Should we turn to new plant fibers ? Banana tree fibers, citrus peels, cactus leaves, apple peels… everything is recovered to make textiles. Hugo Boss, for example, uses Pinatex, made from pineapple leaves, for some of its sneakers.

"A by-product of current agriculture, pineapple leaves are used to create this unique textile: they require no additional resource to push", boasts the German brand on its site.

But experts, like Thomas Ebélé from the SloWeAre label, are wondering about the method of manufacturing these fibers, agglomerated and non-woven, to which a binder must be added, "in the majority of cases, polyurethane" or PLA (polylactic acid), he explains. This non-standardized composition makes the garment at the end of its life "sometimes biodegradable" but not recyclable, according to him.

And to insist: "Biodegradable does not mean compostable! This means that these fibers can degrade under industrial conditions, i.e. with a pressure greater than three atmospheres, a humidity greater than 90%, a temperature between 50 and 70 degrees and with mechanical mixing.

Beyond all these processes, "it'it is above all the volume of clothing produced that is problematic", denounces Céleste Grillet from the energy division at Carbone 4. For Lisa Panhuber, the solution is definitely "to reduce our consumption, repair, reuse".

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