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Can Recycling Fix Fashion's Landfill Problem?

It’s taken Adidas nearly twenty years to find a way to recycle its sneakers, but can breakthroughs like this solve fashion’s waste problem?
With its newest product, Adidas has cracked a decades-long quest to make a recyclable shoe | Source: Courtesy
  • Sarah Kent

LONDON, United Kingdom — For nearly 20 years Adidas AG has pursued an environmental and technological holy grail: a sneaker that can be recycled and reused in new shoes without any waste.

It’s a feat of design and engineering that has proved elusive. A typical sneaker is made up of multiple different materials stuck together with glue. Most recycling techniques can grind all that up into plastic pellets good for surfacing basketball courts or playgrounds. But they can’t be turned back into a new pair of shoes.

At least, until now. This week, the German sportswear giant launched a new shoe that marked a breakthrough in its decades-long quest. Made out of the same kind of plastic as the company’s Boost sole and fused together without using glue, the new Futurecraft.Loop can be broken down once it’s worn out and reused in a new pair of running shoes.

“This project has been a vision for decades,” said Adidas’s technology innovation manager Tanyaradzwa Sahanga. “We’ve had multiple attempts and this is the first successful product.”

Though it’s going to be 2021 before the new shoe—an off-white take on the classic Boost—is available commercially, its launch reflects broader innovations taking place throughout the industry as awareness of fashion’s impact on the planet has grown.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the fashion world produces about 53 million tons of fiber every year. More than 70 percent of that ends up in landfills or on bonfires. Less than 1 percent is reused to make new clothes.

That’s led to mounting pressure on brands to clean up their act, and an increasing focus on materials that can be recycled and repurposed in a virtuous and circular system that reduces or even comes close to eliminating waste.

The fashion world produces 53 million tons of material every year. More than 70 percent ends up in landfills or on bonfires.

Nearly 100 brands have signed up to the Global Fashion Agenda's 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment, which requires companies to set and report on targets to reduce waste and increase reuse and recycling. Adidas itself has pledged to only use recycled polyester by 2024 and will produce 11 million pairs of shoes from recycled plastic this year alone.

The challenge: reducing fashion’s waste on a global scale requires reworking the way the entire industry is set up, and technology is only just beginning to catch up to companies’ ambitions.

Just like shoes, most clothes aren't made out of one material alone. Instead, designers will mix fibres to create a stretchy jean, reduce wrinkles or make a luxury fabric more affordable. The problem is that mixed fabrics are difficult to recycle back into new garments. As a result, the majority of old clothes end up recycled into something of lower value and quality, or in a landfill.

“We’re starting at a very low bar,” said Edwin Keh, chief executive of the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textile and Apparel. “There’s a fundamental rethink needed.”

And it’s not just the technology standing in the way of a solution. For shoes or clothes to be recycled, customers need to be convinced to send back their purchases when they’re finished with them, instead of throwing them away. Collection programs around the world are spotty at best, and sorting the clothes that are collected remains a slow, manual process. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that just 25 percent of used clothes are retrieved for reuse or recycling globally.

Still, around the world pockets of research have led to the development of potentially game-changing new recycling processes that are slowly getting real-world road tests.

In Hong Kong, Keh’s organisation has developed a technology that can separate and recycle blended polyester and cotton. Swedish firm Re:newcell has opened a plant with the capacity to produce 7,000 tons of material every year to test its chemical process for recycling cotton and viscose at industrial scale, which has attracted investment from Hennes & Mauritz AB.

The fast fashion retailer has also invested in Worn Again Technologies alongside luxury group Kering SA. The recycling company is planning to launch its first industrial demonstration plant in 2021--a testing ground for the process its created to separate blended materials into plastic pellets and cellulosic pulp that can be spun back into new fibres.

Elsewhere, companies are working to improve the capabilities of centuries-old mechanical recycling techniques which shred materials like wool, cotton or cashmere to recapture the original fibres--but often at the expense of quality.

Denim de L’Ile Ltd, which makes denim for global brands like Asos PLC from its manufacturing base in Mauritius, has been working to increase the proportion of recycled fibres in the recycled denim it sells without sacrificing the look, feel and strength of the fabric. It’s also cut the amount of waste it sends to landfill in half.

LA-based brand Everybody.World has figured out a way to make T-shirts using only recycled cotton. The process took months of experimenting, and early tests felt “disgusting,” but now the company is looking at ways to expand the products it can make without using any virgin cotton.

To be sure, many of these materials come at a premium--at least for now. For instance, Denim de L’Ile charges about 30 cents more per meter of recycled denim. But there’s a broad acknowledgement that recycled materials will need to compete with conventional fabrics on price if they’re ever to take off.

Those working on getting new technologies off the ground say that will happen as manufacturing processes start to scale, but that’s just one barrier still standing in the way of solutions to fashion’s waste problem.

“There’s been a lot of really great work and there’s a lot of strong potential,” said Traci Kinden, founder of Netherlands-based consultancy REvolve Waste. “But the business case behind that is still a bit tricky, and that’s the linking work that hasn’t been done.”

The industry can't recycle its way out of the problem.

Recycling techniques that have so far only worked in the lab still need to prove they can work at an industrial scale. Major investments will be required to work successful innovations into fashion’s existing supply chain. Manufacturers will need to be willing to take on new kinds of fibres, and brands will need to buy new, experimental materials--and possibly pay a premium for the privilege.

“Everyone is talking about it now,” said Karine Basso, innovation manager at sustainable fashion accelerator Fashion for Good. “It’s a matter of walking the talk.”

At Adidas, the challenge is only beginning. The company’s first limited release of 200 shoes will be distributed to a select group of athletes, influencers and media, but it’s planning a limited commercial release in Spring/Summer 2021. To make that happen, the company has to find a way to integrate new technology and processes into its existing supply chain.

“We’ve thrown conventional footwear and manufacturing out the window,” said Graham Williamson, senior director of future apparel at Adidas. “It’s been a very challenging project.”

Going forward, the company also has to nail other technicalities, like a streamlined collection process that will enable today’s new sneakers to be reprocessed into a fresh pair of shoes once their owners are done with them. Its also got to iron out kinks in the recycling process. With the technology currently available, new shoes can only contain around 10 percent of the recycled Loop plastic and still meet Adidas's performance requirements, though efforts to increase that proportion are already well under way.

Even if all goes to plan, better recycling technologies aren’t going to solve the central paradox facing fashion brands that want to operate more sustainably while still producing a growing volume of new things.

“The industry can’t recycle its way out of the problem,” said Francois Souchet, head of the Make Fashion Circular Initiative at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. “It’s a last resort solution.”

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