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Why Recycling Is Impossible Without Circular Design

4 min read

Why Recycling Is Impossible Without Circular Design

For the longest time the world thought that recycling would be humanity’s golden ticket to true sustainability. The thinking went that every sustainable t-shirt, aluminium can or paper plate would be recycled infinitely, or so lots of highly effective greenwashing claims had people think. The reality has been revealed to be much more complex than the general public were first led to believe, with personal responsibility (individuals and families) only playing a bit-part in the overall success of recycling schemes and processes. 

This doesn’t mean that an eco-friendly clothing company like ourselves should in any way shirk our commitment to creating more sustainable clothes made from recycled materials. Quite the opposite! We have upped the percentage of our eco fashion pieces made from recycled materials to 21.5% in 2022, a number we’re looking to increase.

However, no matter how much of the recycled material and deadstock fabric we save from going to landfill or incinerators, there remains the uncomfortable fact that, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, only 1% of materials used to create clothing are themselves then recycled and turned into new clothing. That’s a staggeringly low number, especially when you recognise that the same foundation’s stats show that clothing sales doubled globally from 2000 to 2015 and are showing no signs of slowing.

Why Is It So Hard To Recycle Clothes?

There are ultimately two reasons as to why the recycling of clothes doesn’t happen and both are interrelated: 

  1. Cost 
  2. Clothing design 

Spend any time shopping online for a sustainable shirt, eco-friendly t-shirt or ethical pants and you will have seen brands making bold claims about the number of ocean plastic bottles that were salvaged to make a particular sustainable fashion piece. There’s nothing wrong with such claims, putting waste plastic to use is commendable, but the devil is in the detail. 

Sustainable fabric production companies like SEAQUAL®, who help us create sustainable swimwear and eco-friendly towels and blankets, prefer to use waste such as plastic bottles made from clear 100% PET (polyethylene terephthalate). This is because it is easy to recycle and repurpose into eco fabrics like SEAQUAL®

Unfortunately, it is neither cheap nor easy to recycle post consumer clothing waste. Design features made from different materials along with buttons, zips, linings and all the other things that go into crafting modern durable clothing all must be stripped from a garment before it can be recycled, and those same buttons and zips also need to be recycled themselves. Even once a piece of clothing has been stripped of such features, many clothes are made from fabric blends which are almost impossible to recycle. As the barriers to recycling such products grow, be they sustainable jackets or fast fashion pants, so too does the cost.

Why Is Circular Design So Important?

The essence of circular design is to firstly create sustainable clothing that is long lasting, so that it never needs to be thrown away in the first place. This is especially important when you consider that a 2015 study by UK charity Barnado’s found that, on average, each piece of clothing made is only worn seven times, regardless of whether it’s a sustainable shirt or a fast fashion t-shirt. 

Secondly, new eco clothing must be designed in such a way that it can be easily recycled, repurposed or re-sold. One of the ways to achieve this is producing mono-material sustainable pants or mono-material eco-friendly underwear. A mono-material piece is one made from a sole material, which is devoid of special coatings, and that boasts as few buttons, zips, linings and synthetic threads as possible. The problem with this is that many slow fashion fans have become accustomed to wearing sustainable clothes that bear intricate design features or additional functionalities, thus making the use of mono-materials difficult, especially when a sustainable clothing brand is in direct competition with other eco clothing brands.

Essentially the best thing for our oceans would be for all sustainable fashion consumers to create wardrobes made of durable, long-lasting basics. This will ultimately be the only way that we can get close to achieving true fashion circularity.  

Sustainable Fabrics Like Recover™ Also Key 

While sustainable fashion brands like TWOTHIRDS can do their bit to increase fashion circularity, so too can eco fabric producers. Great work is already being done by companies like our good friends at Recover™ whose pioneering recycled cotton fabric will be produced using ⅓ “post-consumer” recycling by 2025. This shows that when circular design and new technological advances combine, real wins can be made for the environment.

Clothing Output The Elephant In The Room

Even after all the possible advances that can and should be made when it comes to circular design and post consumer recycling, neither process will ever truly reduce fashion’s dependence on mass raw material extraction and the fossil fuel industry, unless something is done about the unstoppable increases in clothing production. Even major fashion magazines like Vogue are talking about this giant elephant in the room, so it’s time for a sustainable fashion brand like TWOTHIRDS to start engaging with the topic seriously.