Reading Time: 12 minutes

THE CHALLENGES, OPPORTUNITIES AND FUTURE OF TEXTILE REGENERATION WITH WORN AGAIN TECHNOLOGIES

Installation by Finnish Artist Kaarina Kaikkonen using second hand clothes. Source: inhabitat.com

October, 21st 2020

When you think of the words ‘worn again’, what comes to mind? Upcycling, recycling, donating, or maybe just the clothes in your closet? The term ‘worn again’ has adopted an entirely new definition thanks to the sustainable technology company, Worn Again Technologies. Staiy had the opportunity to talk with the brand about their mission to eradicate textile waste and to live in a world where resources are kept in constant circulation.

Words By Gabrielle Hollenbeck 

The Facts

Second to oil, the clothing and textile industry is the largest polluter in the world. According to the European Economic Area, EU consumers discard around 11 kg of textiles per person, per year, with the EU textile industry generating an estimated 16 million tons per year. Whilst a significant proportion of used clothes are exported to Asia, Africa and Eastern European countries, the remaining textile waste is either landfilled or incinerated, losing valuable fibres, and at a great detriment to the environment. 

Source: zerowastewashington.org

The Importance

The sheer scale of waste produced from the industry is precisely why companies like Worn Again are crucial to moving forward. Current recycling or upcycling methods do not solve the crux of the issue. As it stands, most textiles have a limited lifespan and that lifespan is environmentally costly. But what if we could reuse those textiles by extracting the raw materials and feeding it back into the production line, avoiding waste altogether? This concept is at the core of circularity and is what Worn Again Technologies is attempting to introduce into the fashion industry.

The Worn Again Story

Worn Again Technologies started their journey in 2005, where they collected unused textiles – from old prison blankets to retired hot air balloons – and turned them into fresh and fetching jackets, footwear, handbags and other accessories. Founded by Cyndi Rhoades and Nick Ryan, the company has collaborated with numerous organizations and celebrated small victories in the positive impact they were having. However, they knew even though Worn Again Technologies was making a difference – it was small. They knew that by giving these textiles a second life, the new products would eventually find their way to landfill at some point due to the lack of any real recycling solutions being available. 

With a refined vision for completely eradicating textile waste, the company evolved in 2012 with the help of today’s Chief Scientific Officer, Dr. Adam Walker. The new mission was now to create the groundbreaking, regenerative technologies needed to keep recycled textiles in circulation.

A corset made of gloves by Martin Margiela in 2001. Source: Pinterest

The Technology

In discussion with Worn Again Technologies representative, Chiara Galimberti explained some of the issues faced in the initial stages of material extraction. The current technology for recycling relies on mechanical processes to extract the fibers, which can only be done on textiles composed of a single type of fibre, such as 100% cotton and today only 1% of textiles gets recycled. Most fabrics today, however, are blends of materials like polyester and cotton which are extremely difficult to separate. Enter Worn Again Technologies. Instead of using the current mechanical procedures, the company is researching and developing the use of chemical processes to allow for larger quantities of clothes to be recycled. The novel technology is able to separate, decontaminate and extract cellulose from cotton and polyester from textile blends so that they can be reintroduced into the supply chain. This process is therefore helping the textiles industry move away from a linear supply chain to a circular system, providing resource security.

Recovered raw materials

Dye removal in the lab

wornagain.co.uk

Dye removal

The Challenges

This technology is still in development and comes with its fair share of challenges. It requires a huge investment to fund the engineering research, whilst having to remain financially competitive to meet market viability. Galimberti also notes the challenges of collection efficiency in terms of sorting and volume. Another problem lies in convincing the brands, retailers and textile manufacturers to engage with the project and to see its benefits and potential. To tackle this, Worn Again Technologies has established a Pioneer Members program of textile brands such as H&M, Kering and Sympatex that have embarked on the company’s mission.

Clothes covering a building’s facade in London. Source: tdsblog.com

The last key challenge resides within the impact and influence of policy and policymakers. The rate of collection will only improve if recycling legislation is introduced as has been done for plastics. This could be policies requiring a minimum percentage of materials used in garment production to be from a recycled source, or to have a separate bin dedicated to textile in every city. Reflecting on the company’s obstacles, Galimberti concludes, “Essentially, there are three main challenges: the technology’s development and scale up, striving for circularity, and the influence of policy makers.”

“Really chase down the brands, ask them if they are taking responsibility and whether they have any recycling schemes, because brands are acting in response to consumer demand.”

Call To Action

As consumers, the simplest thing we can do is educate ourselves: find out which brands have adopted a take-back scheme for used clothing, find NGO’s & charities that re-use and re-sell, and know that there is life beyond the garments we’ve been using. Lobbying for policy changes is another powerful way to advocate for change. Lastly, as Galimberti suggests, “Really chase down the brands, ask them if they are taking responsibility and whether they have any recycling schemes, because brands are acting in response to consumer demand.” As we eagerly await these technologies that will forge the path to a circular economy, we should all hold each other accountable for doing our part and ensuring old textiles can be Worn Again.