Different studies give different estimates on the total number of garments produced globally, falling between 80 billion to 150 billion pieces a year, before the corona crisis hit. “The 2020 Preferred Fiber and Materials Market Report reveals that the global fiber production has doubled in the last 20 years, reaching an all-time high of 111 million metric tons in 2019 and pre-COVID-19 results indicated potential growth to 146 million metric tons by 2030.”(1)  Not all textile fiber gets used in fashion, but by an estimate at least a third of it does, given the volumes of new garments produced globally.

From our research (read our white paper here) we also know that up to 47% of all fibre entering the fashion value chain becomes waste throughout the myriad of different stages of production from fiber, yarn, fabric up to a garment (2).

However, the wasted material of a process can be usable in another. For example, it should just be obvious that comber noil, the long fiber falling out of the spinning in the first round of finer yarns, can be taken back to spinning and used again for production of coarser sweater yarns.

In such a way we can create a whole hierarchy of waste based on the market value or the quality of (recycled) products that can be made out of them. By the market value it ranges from close to the same price of raw material down to negative value – pay extra for it so that we incinerate or landfill it for you. Same with quality – knit yarn waste is better for recycling than fine shirting fabric waste for example. Market price and quality aren’t however always the best indicators of hierarchy, because depending on the location of the waste and different market barriers the same type of waste may end up finding a completely different use case in different markets. A more general match of waste types and existing recycling technologies should be applied globally. 

So if we leave out the location, theoretical borders between organisations and the access to best recycling technologies, what should we even call waste? Where to draw the line?

Taking a similar approach to the Global Recycling Standard, we could claim that half of the spinning waste and most of the overstock and deadstock fabrics from mills and garment factories are so highly reusable that they should not be considered “waste”. It can be used in-house and the reuse of such waste should be qualified as process optimisation, even if it sometimes takes extra effort, investments or marketing to do so. We should also consider that roll-ends and large cut panels usually find their way from larger production sites to smaller factories nearby, and are a classical by-product of mass-production. We can then rather conservatively say that the fashion industry still generates 25% of such textile waste that needs pre-treatment before it could be used again as a resource for next round of fashion production. Let’s call this recyclable textile waste.

In conclusion – from 37 mln tonnes of fiber used by fashion and 25% of that becoming recyclable waste – we can conclude that the total volume of industrial recyclable textile waste is at least around 9 million tonnes globally per year.

We took it a step further. We looked at the breakdown of fibers by composition reported in The 2020 Preferred Fiber and Materials Market Report by the Textile Exchange, and compared this with the data from the waste mapping surveys done by Reverse Resources in 20 countries across 1200+ factories. Based on that we have put together a rough indication of which fibre compositions and types of waste are available in the global market for textile recycling.