The fashion industry has grown exponentially over the past few decades and now contributes £26 billion to the UK economy, employing almost 5% of the total workforce. As the industry has grown, our fashion habits have transformed too. Each year in the UK we now throw out 1 million tonnes of textiles. A typical household owns around £4,000 worth of clothing and worldwide an astonishing 70,000 tonnes of clothing is thrown away each year, enough to circle the world 2,500 times!

With all these perfectly good quality textiles ending up in landfill, the challenge is to find a way of keeping this valuable resource in the system, in a closed loop circular economy. Put it this way: you buy a top for £15, that top now has an embedded financial value. Throw it in landfill and that value is wasted forever; but put it back into the system and you can redistribute that value elsewhere. The value is not only financial; each garment also takes lots of water, manual labour and transportation to produce, which we can no longer afford to throw away.

This is what SOEX GROUP does with I:CO. Working in 90 countries across four continents they are one of the largest textile recycling companies in the world. We visited their recycling plant in Wolfen, Germany, to explore how it all works.

The Wolfen centre processes 100,000 tonnes of unwanted textiles each year, the majority from consumers dropping clothing off in I:CO collection bins found in retail shops, streets and businesses throughout Europe. They have a huge workforce sorting through the collected clothing according to 350 criteria to ensure that every fibre is valued and re-used in a closed loop system. Clothing is first pre-sorted into the type of garment and season, e.g. jeans, jacket, dress, t-shirt. They are then fine sorted by quality to determine whether they are re-worn or recycled

1) Re-wearable clothing

60% of clothing collected by SOEX GROUP is re-wearable and is resold around the world. The plant has in-house fashion experts who are able to identify the decade of each garment and estimate its value based on detailed features such as type of stitching and buttons. As part of our tour we were given the challenge of identifying the decade of an array of beautiful clothes picked from the early 40s through to the garish 90s. It was a feast for the eyes and brought a great sense nostalgia. Some of the pieces that had been discarded from one wardrobe would be gold dust in another. 

Some seasonal garments are taken to countries such as Kenya where they are re-worn. However SOEX GROUP insist that to keep the closed loop system going; no matter where I:CO clothes end up, an I:CO collection point is always installed so that once the garments come to the end of their second life, they can always be fed back into the system. After the second collection of clothing, just 5% of clothing can be re-worn and 95% is recycled so you know their wearable life is being maximised.

2) Recycling fabrics

The remaining 35% of clothing that can’t be re-worn is reused as items such as cleaning cloths, or is downcycled into products such as insulation and sound proofing for cars, or is re-manufactured in a closed-loop system to make new products such as jeans.

3) It's not all about fabric

Pride is embedded into every fibre of this factory. For this workforce being frugal with resources, efficient and taking initiative to find new ways of zero waste is a way of life.

You only need to look around the recycling plant to see the epitome of efficiency. Everything follows the waste hierarchy of reduce, reuse and recycle and almost nothing goes to waste. Plastic bags collected with the clothing are stacked, melted down and re-made into new bags. Each month 70 tonnes of dust and small bits of fibres that would normally fill the air in a factory like this are sucked into an efficient air ventilation system that collects it, compresses it into bricks and sends it off to be transformed into recycled into paper and cardboard.

The whole recycling plant functions on 2.5 miles of textiles transporter sacks that carry fabrics from one section to the next, powered by rows of solar panels that capture energy to keep this Willy Wonka-style process in motion. The mechanism was designed by the factory owner who once accidentally stumbled into a hotel laundry room and saw how cleaners were sorting their washing and decided to upscale it for recycling fabrics.

Challenges and future visions for recycling textiles

One of the biggest challenges SOEX GROUP faces is blended clothes. Clothing that has less than 80% of any one fabric is very difficult to break down and recycle. Over the next 5 years the ambition is to improve technologies and find a way of gaining maximum value from blended fabrics (which now make up the majority in our wardrobes).

Another challenge is the 5% of textiles that is not recyclable, is wet or mouldy when collected, and therefore has to be incinerated. Although this process creates energy that is fed back into the system, it is costly and doesn't extract the maximum value from the textiles. By informing consumers to take better care of their clothes in ways such as washing them before putting them away, and by raising awareness of how I:CO works, they hope that 100% will soon be fed into the closed loop system.