Closing the loop of production fabric cutting waste: 4 main opportunities and challenges for manufacturers
Fabric cutting waste is the largest pre-consumer textile waste from the manufacturing of garments and home textile products, such as upholstered furniture and bed textiles. It has however not had as much attention from the public as postconsumer waste.
Recognizing and utilizing the value that lies within this waste, offers great opportunities and presents challenges for products manufacturers.
As part of our commitment ‘Embrace durability & circularity’, LTP Group has set an ambitious goal of recycling 100% of this type of fabric waste before the end of 2022. In this article we share practical insights from the implementation of recycling projects, hoping to raise industry awareness on the topic and invite more garment and furniture brands to address the issue.
LTP Garment has been sorting and collecting pure cotton and wool cutting scraps for one of its largest and oldest customer. In 2021, a total of ~ 930 kg of fabric cutting waste has been recycled and the new fabric with recycled content has been used in manufacturing of new garments.
LTP Furniture is working on a pilot project with a customer to also reuse fabric cutting scraps in manufacturing of new products. The project is at a new round of quality testing stage. The relationship built with the local recycling company will be leveraged to expand the project to additional customers in the future.
Before we dive into the specificities of fabric cutting waste from manufacturing, it is key to remind that there is a hierarchy of waste handling. As the second principle of Ellen McArthur Foundation states:
“The second principle of the circular economy is to circulate products and materials at their highest value. This means keeping materials in use, either as a product or, when that can no longer be used, as components or raw materials. This way, nothing becomes waste and the intrinsic value of products and materials are retained.”
This means that the below hierarchy of waste handling actions should be followed:
1. Remanufacturing: all textile remaining in production (stock ends; cut pieces etc.), that can be used in new products should be used. Design should not impose new orders of fabric, but available fabric should inspire new product design. No transport nor use of energy is needed.
2. Upcycling: textile waste that could not be used in remanufactured products as-is, should be gathered and recycled to make a product of higher value. Eg. fabric cutting waste recycled into a new textile used in new furniture.
3. Downcycling: textile waste that could not be recycled to make a product of higher value, should be gathered and recycled to make a product of lower value. Eg. fabric cutting waste recycled into construction materials
4. Incineration – energy creation: textile waste that cannot be recycled is incinerated, in waste-to-energy plants
5. Incineration – no energy creation & landfill: textile waste is incinerated with no energy creation or is landfilled according to national regulation.
The butterfly diagram: visualising the circular economy, adapted to textile products
In practice, it is very difficult to remanufacture fabric cutting waste, since small pieces of fabric have limited application for new products. In some cases, limited editions or small collections can be made but mass production cannot be reached. However, there are real opportunities to upcycle or downcycle fabric cutting waste at scale. There are of course also challenges, but which can and have to be solved by industry players.
4 opportunities to recycle pre-consumer textile waste:
1. Waste concentration: Pre-consumer textile waste is easier to collect than post-consumer waste since it is concentrated at the manufacturing locations. It also requires less transportation to recycling locations since it has not been disseminated across countries during retail.
2. No disassembly needed: Pre-consumer textile waste does not require disassembly like finished products. It is only fabric with no added trims, labels or other glued materials.
3. Smaller loop to be closed: Manufacturers and fabric producers have typically direct business relationships and logistics flows for delivery of fabric rolls. It is thus much easier for them to exchange fabric waste and recycled fabric than it is for brands or end-consumers.
4. Reduced cost from waste disposal: Disposing fabric cutting waste has a cost for manufacturers if this waste is meant for recycling. Finding an alternative for disposal can thus reduce this cost and cover some of the expenses from waste sorting and collection.
4 challenges to recycle pre-consumer textile waste:
1. Additional time and storage capacity: Collection and storage of fabric waste right after the cutting process takes time and requires additional human and physical resources. This additional cost is preventing manufacturers to scale recycling projects, if it is not covered by brands and/or recycling companies.
2. Dependency on brands to buy recycled materials: There are usually no buyers of the recycled material from most fabric types. Manufacturers are relying on brands to agree to buy and use recycled materials in new products production. Fabric with a majority of recycled content does not have the same properties than fabric with virgin content and can react differently to manufacturing processes. Since most brands do not want to compromise on quality, nor look of materials and want to limit time for product development, they often disagree to use such materials.
3. Textile poly-composition: Existing recycling technologies are limited to specific fabric types. While it is easy to recycle and resell fabric composed of pure cotton or pure wool, and other fabric types with mono composition, it is much more difficult to recycle poly-composition fabric. In particular, fabric made of several types of synthetics (polyester, elastane etc.) is not recyclable. Emerging technologies will be able to recover the polyester but not the remaining composition.
4. Waste ownership and digital traceability: The question of the ownership of the fabric waste and manufacturers responsibility to dispose of the waste in a circular manner is a barrier for implementing recycling solutions. In most cases the fabric belongs to the brands and is ordered and stocked at the manufacturer’s factory. During production the cut fabric pieces are seen as production waste and handled as such by manufacturers. To efficiently recycle this waste at scale, manufacturers need tools to trace how much and when different types of fabric will be cut to implement sorting and stocking guidelines accordingly.
The above opportunities and challenges have been identified through discussions with supply chain partners, textile recycling experts and during projects with garment and furniture customers.
LTP is a Danish owned garment manufacturer for +60 premium brands within active sportswear, cycling, outdoor, urban performance, performance running and organic & lifestyle apparel. LTP was established in 1991 and now spans two continents - Europe and Asia with 6 fully owned factories in 5 countries (Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus, Romania and Vietnam). Our European Innovation Centre is located in Kaunas, Lithuania and our Asian Innovation Centre is located in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. We have a Bluesign partner factory in 4 countries where we operate (Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus and Vietnam).