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Commentary: Why can’t the fashion industry recycle discarded clothes?

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SYDNEY: Today, we make more clothing than ever before. And the driver for this is primarily economic, rather than human need. Over the past decade, the term “circular economy” has entered the fashion industry lexicon, where materials are made to be reused and recycled by design.

Yet we haven’t seen the same level of recycling in fashion as we have in other spaces – such as with plastic recycling, for instance. And this is mainly because clothing-to-clothing recycling is much more difficult.

The use of recycled polyester and cotton by brands, such as H&M and Cotton On, are key aspects of these companies’ sustainability initiatives – but the source of these recycled fibres usually isn’t clothing. Recycled polyester tends to come from plastic bottles, and recycled cotton is usually made from manufacturing waste.

The fact is that most clothing is simply not designed to be recycled. Even when it is, the fashion industry lacks the kind of infrastructure needed to really embrace a circular economy model.

RECYCLING CLOTHES IS VERY DIFFICULT 

Recycling clothing isn’t like recycling paper, glass or metal. Clothes are endlessly variable and unpredictable. So they’re not ideal for recycling technologies, which require steady and consistent source materials.

Even a seemingly simple garment may contain multiple materials, with fibre blends such as cotton/polyester and cotton/elastane being common.

Different fibres have different capacities for recycling. Natural fibres, such as wool or cotton, can be recycled mechanically. In this process, the fabric is shredded and re-spun into yarn, from which new fabric can be woven or knitted.

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