Fibersort is one of many innovation projects happening in the textile recycling sphere. As you might have guessed from the name, it’s about fibre sorting! The project, which ran from 2006-2010, developed a machine to sort used clothing based on fibre composition and colour, using infrared technology. Today’s interview is with Hilde van Duijn who was the project manager for Fibersort. Before we turn to Hilde, let me first give you a little more project info:
Note: this section is paraphrased by me from publicly available information on the Interreg North-West Europe website (the body that provided much of the funding for the Fibersort project).
- Fibersort takes non-rewearables discarded clothing (i.e. used clothing unsuitable for resale) and sorts them by composition and colour. The aim is to enable the discarded clothing to turn into quality feedstock that can be recycled into materials for new garments. Otherwise, textiles are downcycled (e.g. industrial wipes, mattress stuffing, car insulation) or incinerated or landfilled.
- In North-West Europe, 4.7 million tonnes of textiles are discarded each year. 30% of that is collected, the rest will be incinerated or landfilled with household waste.
- Initially a Dutch initiative, Fibersort was a 5-year project largely funded by the EU (Interreg North-West Europe). The project ran from 2016 to 2020 (the development of the technology started in 2008 by Wieland Textiles)
How does Fibersort work?
Clothes are automatically fed onto a conveyor belt, where they are scanned and placed into different buckets. Clothes can be sorted into 90 categories based on composition and colour. Watch the video for a closer look:
Ok, and now to the discussion with Hilde:
What can go into the Fibersort?
We’re most concerned with clothing. In the recycling chain, once the consumer disposes of their clothing, the clothes are taken to a sorting facility. The first step is removing household waste that contaminates the textiles. So please tie up your bag when you get rid of your clothes!
Then in the manual sorting process, workers will determine what is and is non-rewearable (whether it can be resold in the local market or exported elsewhere). The best case scenario is of course rewear. About half of the clothes fall into this category.
Of the remaining non-rewearables, about half can go into a machine like Fibersort. This is because clothes need to be mono-material – that is, only one type of fabric in the garment (whether it is a blend or 100% of one type of fibre). For example, a lined jacket for example is not suitable, nor are things with sequins.
How many Fibersort machines are there?
The proof of concept machine is in a facility in the Netherlands, there is another demo facility in Sweden, and a few in China (not operating at scale). The one in the Netherlands mostly supplies the knitwear brand Loop.a life. The demand for Fibersort is high but there also needs to be more infrastructure to enable the outputs to turn back into garments at scale.
What additional infrastructure is needed?
To understand this we need to think about current recycling processes. Mechanical recycling has existed for years and there are already machines that “cut and clean”. They strip out the hardware (buttons, zips) and labels from textiles. After that, the clothes are turned into clippings, for example 6x6cm size, which is then sold as feedstock for textile to textile recycling.
What doesn’t exist yet is a machine that can detect if the clippings are clean – there is no technology to remove labels. At the moment, wind shifting technology (weight + wind) relies on gravity pulling down heavier clippings with hardware. But it can miss tiny buttons and sequins or a bit of zip. Machines can get messed up if these small contaminants get caught up (plastic will melt) when during the yarn production process.
Labels are another problem. Most of them are polyester and are a different colour from clothes. There will be tiny white fibres in the new yarn if they aren’t removed.
After the Fibersort technology was developed, a new initiative called Textiles 2 Textiles was established to develop and operate a fully integrated sorting and pre-processing facility to turn garments into feedstock for recycling.
How much contamination can there be in the textile recycling process?
The existing technologies can deal with things like polyester sewing thread. But fibre blends and elastane are really problematic. In mechanical recycling, you have to tear the material apart. If elastane warms up, it melts! So a 95% cotton / 5% elastane blend is not a good thing to give to a textile recycler.
But of course the dilemma is in durability. A cotton/polyester blend might work much better for a garment than a 100% cotton because it is much more robust as a fabric.
By the way, workwear is often treated with a finish. This makes it mostly not suitable for mechanical recycling. The chemicals from the finishing will remain if you recycle them the chemicals.
What about something like a cotton/linen blend like I’m wearing today?
That would be an exceptional blend without a category. If it was cotton-rich then it can be recycled, e.g. 80% cotton / 20% linen. But if it was more 60/40 then it will probably end up downcycled or incinerated. There is not a big market for this specific blend.
The problem with downcycled textile products is that they are often still single-use products. Let’s say you turn something into wipes for industrial purposes or insulation. You cannot do anything more with it when that has been used.
What can consumers do to assist the textile recycling process?
First, buy less. Second, if you want to look at it from a recycling perspective, it is cotton-rich and wool-rich clothes or fabric so you could pick those. This is preferable to anything that is a blend, because that requires chemical recycling technology which is in development at pilot scale. There is no right destination for those garments yet.
There was no thought put into the end of life in the past. Otherwise we would never have things like sequins. Things like lurex thread are also non-recyclable. It stays intact through the whole recycling process. I have a sweater made from feedstock that came from Fibersort and you can still see bits of it running through the sweater.
With thanks to Hilde for taking the time to speak to me.
I hope you enjoyed reading this little glimpse into Fibersort. Whilst every country has their own textile waste practices, for me living in the Netherlands, I think the takeaway is that I can probably be more mindful of the way that I get rid of my stuff. Either make sure it’s good enough to be reworn by someone else. Or if it’s not refashion-able by me, then harvest all the notions from it, and remove any labels before putting it into the textile bin.
Would you like to read more about textile waste? These are some of my other posts – clearly I’m obsessed with waste as much as I am sewing!
- Weaving with recycled textiles with Enschede Textielstad
- Upcycling with fashion designer Christopher Raeburn
- Challenges with fibre blends and recycling
- A potential solution for wastewater treatment from small scale textile dyeing (research project)
- The afterlife of donated clothes
Till next time,