The cycle starts with the design: new recycled textiles pass practical tests

The ecological footprint of the textile industry is still too high. In order to become more sustainable and initiate a textile turnaround, the industry must become circular. Especially commercial textiles, such as bedding or work clothes, can play a key role here, as a research project based on extensive practical tests has now shown.

In the “DiTex” project, research and the textile industry jointly test the transition to a circular economy using the example of commercial textiles. The specially developed reusable polo shirts, business shirts and bedding were tested and evaluated by rescue workers and the police in a linen rental system; then the substances were recycled. Conclusion after three years of research and development: Test passed. On 19 and 20 October 2022, the results will be presented at the conference “Towards a circular textile economy – products, business models and digital strategies” in Berlin.

The project, funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), has brought together several approaches to promote a circular textile economy: an ecologically optimized and recyclable selection of fibers and materials, an extended lifespan through the rental of robust, longer-lasting textiles, digital tracking and textile fiber recycling. The project, led by the Institute for Ecological Economic Research (IÖW), was carried out together with the Hohenstein Institute for Textile Innovation, Texoversum – Textile Faculty at Reutlingen University and ifeu – Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Heidelberg as scientific partners, as well as the manufacturing companies Dibella and Wilhelm Weishäupl and from the innovation technology.

Circular strategies from design to use to recycling

Project manager Frieder Rubik from IÖW summarizes after more than three years of research: “The DiTex textiles were designed to be reusable and could also be recycled. This is an important building block for a circular textile economy. But our project also shows that recycling is not the only solution to the textile industry’s environmental problems. A circular economy includes different strategies for more resource efficiency – in products, but also in business models.” Sven Gärtner from the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (ifeu) adds that, for example, more than 90 percent can be saved simply by using fibers made of polyester instead of cotton of the environmental impacts in the form of water and land footprints. “If lyocell is used instead of cotton, the savings in terms of water footprint are similar, while the footprint of the area can still save about 70 percent of the environmental impact.”

The research team tested circular strategies from design to use to reuse, based on quality checks and user reviews. “The materials show potential for the leasing sector, and the three product designs for circular, commercial textiles can now be used and further developed by manufacturers and textile services,” says Kim Hecht of the Hohenstein Institute for Textile Innovation, who worked on the definition of quality standards in the project.

In order to establish circular textiles, circularity must be considered from the start, explains Guido Reinhardt from ifeu: “Design for circularity means that recycled fibers are used, cotton is replaced by more resource-saving materials such as lyocell or recycled polyester, and products are durable and can be repaired to be developed. The prerequisite for a closed cycle is that the textiles are actually recycled in the end.”

Textile service is a key player

A shift towards more sustainable, circular textiles can be more easily achieved for commercial textiles than for private textiles. This is primarily due to the large purchase volumes. Martina Gerbig from Reutlingen University emphasizes that large commercial consumers and public procurement agencies should use their purchasing power in the market and, for example, integrate recyclability and recycling as specifications in their tenders.

The researchers emphasize that it is important that actors in the entire textile chain pull together: From manufacturers and textile service providers, over authorities, commercial and public purchasing offices and users to recycling companies. It is also imperative that there is a continuous and standardized flow of data and information, from producers to users for recycling. For this purpose, “circularity.ID” was used as a digital product passport in the DiTex textiles. The conditions for a textile conversion are particularly favorable for commercial textiles. A key player for the circular economy is the textile service. Because for him, circular logistics, the rental of large quantities of textiles with a known composition and an orientation towards a long life are part of the business model.

The textile industry should experiment more

The research team encourages the textile industry to show commitment and experiments: “Changing the textile chain is a joint effort by market players and commercial and public procurement agencies. They need clear and reliable framework conditions and signals to be able to develop their creativity and innovative strength. It is necessary to support innovations and to accompany a transformation of the textile industry through funding and innovation programs,” appeals Frieder Rubik from IÖW. The practice partner Dibella is a good example: “We got an important push from the project and started series production of the bedding,” explains Martijn Witteveen from Dibella. And Florian Kamm from the practice partner Wilhelm Weishäupl partner company says at the end of the project: “We are very happy to have been part of the DiTex project. We were able to gain a wide range of new insights and experiences and will take them into account in future inquiries and developments.”

The conference wants to promote the textile revolution

The project group has compiled the results and recommendations for action for players in the textile industry in ten fact sheets on topics such as the textile service’s business model, material selection or digital strategies. The conference “Towards a circular textile industry – products, business models and digital strategies” on 19 and 20 October 2022 in Berlin will present the results of the project, create a framework for the exchange on the pressing challenges of the textile industry and show step a textile turnaround. “What about renting instead of buying? At the conference, we want to discuss how business models can be developed in the textile industry and under what conditions textile recycling makes sense. We also want to focus on digital technologies and how they can be used,” says Christina Vogel (IÖW).

Source: Institute for Ecological Economic Research (IÖW)

*When the generic masculine is used, this is for readability only. However, all genders can be considered (editorial).

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