Alongside climate change, circular economy is the concept on everyone’s mind and lips. It all sounds great – using already existing material to make new ones. But to brands, there is the aspect of chemical content to consider. The fact is, it’s very difficult to know what recycled material actually contains. There are many ways to address this, with a few common traits: they all require collaboration and transparency. ChemSec’s Senior Policy Advisor Theresa Kjell shares her insights on the topic.
A while ago, I moderated a webinar where H&M and IKEA presented the results of their long-running, joint study on chemicals in recycled textiles. The study was initiated a couple of years ago and the first results – on cotton – were released last spring.
Textiles are notoriously known for low recycling rates; less than one percent is recycled into new garments.
Although more and more brands are taking responsibility to phase out hazardous substances for the sake of chemical safety and to boost recycling rates, the textile industry in general is still a very heavy user of toxic chemicals.
“The textile industry in general is still a very heavy user of toxic chemicals”
At ChemSec, we know from previous collaborations and studies that hazardous content is a major road block that makes it difficult to use more recycled material. Recycling materials without perpetuating toxic chemicals is an opportunity and a huge business to tap into – one which should be enabled by regulation. Adding knowledge through studies like this one is crucial.
Working together is both necessary and beneficial
Assessing which materials are clean enough to use isn’t something that one brand can pull off on its own. Although several brands have informed us time and time again about the impossibility of sharing this kind of information with other brands and industries, the ones involved in this study (GAP, Adidas, PVH Corp, Bestseller and Kingfisher, alongside IKEA and H&M) have proven it possible, even profitable.
So, this project is ultimately about something even bigger than the chemical content of recycled textiles. It is about collaboration and how doing things together is the only way to reach real sustainability, real change.
Transparency can prevent regrettable substitution
What I take away from this study is first and foremost that problematic substances must be regulated and substituted, but not by chemicals that are equally problematic. There is one very good example of this in the test results; the phthalate DINP was detected in polyester samples – a clear case of regrettable substitution, as there are plenty of good, safe substitutes available.
“The first step is for chemicals suppliers to be open with the brands about the content”
There is no way to address hazardous substances in recycled material without knowing which substances have been used.
So, this information needs to be transferred throughout the entire supply chain and into the waste phase.
The first step is for chemicals suppliers to be open with the brands about the content, which is often not the case today. Positive lists from brands on which chemicals they allow is one way to simplify this communication, albeit a difficult one, as it requires a change of mind-set. Clearly, we’re not there yet.
The sad and toxic state of wool
It is difficult to accept that not all materials are suitable for recycling. If we continue to reintroduce hazardous chemicals through recycled material, we’re not only risking consumers once again being exposed to these problematic substances, but also decreasing the value of the material that the recyclate is mixed with. In my view, the results of this project suggest that a material like wool – where no sample lacks detection of at least one hazardous chemical, and almost all samples fail at some test – is not a mature waste stream suitable for recycling.
The wool results highlight another very interesting aspect of the urgency of properly regulating hazardous substances: The wool samples contained significant levels of chromium, likely at least partly due to the use of dyeing with sodium dichromate. Most brands abandoned this problematic method decades ago, but a few users still remain, seeking permission – authorisation – for continued use, even when there are alternatives available. The result of this harmful practice now shows up in the waste streams, making recycling difficult. The lesson must be learned. This use must be stopped.
Circularity requires change – and it won’t come easy
The kind of collaboration shown by the companies that have contributed to this study is the perfect example of how working together is key to achieve circular economy. In fact, all the best examples of high-quality use of recycled material we’ve seen so far come from new collaborations – sometimes between brands, often involving waste collectors, recyclers, municipalities and other stakeholders.
Reaching circularity is no easy feat. It takes real change. Brands need to change and reevaluate old business models, as well as their perception of new and old materials.
Suppliers need to change and embrace transparency, perhaps offer fewer products and adjust the markets.
“Some really tough decisions are long overdue”