Recycling for Circularity: Realities from Bangladesh

The adoption of a proposal by the European Commission for a directive on corporate sustainability and due diligence will have far reaching effects. A report.

Long Story, Cut Short
  • Textile-to-textile recycling in Europe is consuming a lot of industrial waste from Asia now and Asia is importing post-consumer waste but can’t consume all of it.
  • There is a need to localise recycling and also know which materials match with which technologies.
  • The new legislations in the European Union (EU) are a positive development in levelling the playing field and setting clear expectations towards where things are.
A textile waste dump. The fashion industry expects drastic upending due to its resource intensity, environmental impacts such as GHG emissions, and poor ability to protect workers and foster prosperity for all. Circular principles are widely believed to have the potential to offer systemic resolve for these issues and several European level strategies are advancing on this topic.
Wasting of Waste A textile waste dump. The fashion industry expects drastic upending due to its resource intensity, environmental impacts such as GHG emissions, and poor ability to protect workers and foster prosperity for all. Circular principles are widely believed to have the potential to offer systemic resolve for these issues and several European level strategies are advancing on this topic. Caitriona Rogerson / Flickr 2.0

When the Global Fashion Agenda (GFA) established the Circular Fashion Partnership (CFP) in Bangladesh, many legislations and guidelines were still being drafted, or public consultations were still on.

One of the sets of rules that have since seen the light of day is the adoption of a proposal by the European Commission for a directive on corporate sustainability and due diligence. Companies will now be required to “identify and, where necessary, prevent, end or mitigate adverse impacts of their activities on human rights, such as child labour and exploitation of workers, and on the environment, for example pollution and biodiversity loss.”

The due diligence that was being followed just on basis of guidelines and not law takes on a whole new meaning altogether. The rules have implications for brands, as also suppliers.

Danique Lodewijks, Senior Project Specialist at Bestseller, feels it is all the more imperative now “to know where our products are being produced, and also find solutions on what to do with the waste that we generate with our production.” Bestseller sources heavily from Bangladesh and was an important player in the CFP project. “Collaborating in Bangladesh with local recyclers made it possible for us to close the loop and reuse our waste in new garments. This is something we need to build on not only for the cotton waste but also for the others we have in our collections.”

The new legislations in the European Union (EU) are important to behemoth H&M not just as a European brand, but to all those who operate in the EU, says Masarrat Quader, Regional Stakeholder Engagement & Public Affairs Manager at the H&M Group. “We see this as a positive development in levelling the playing field and setting clear expectations towards where things are moving in the EU. There will definitely be consequences for us as well as other brands in terms of the changes. We have a high level of both transparency and traceability in terms of our supply chain.”

Herein the narrative has been quite centred around post-use recycling. In the changing context, could post-industrial become a leading topic?

Ann Runnel, Founder-CEO of Reverse Resources, which was a key player in analysing the data from the CFP project, argues, “If our mission is to help the fashion industry close its loop and take textile waste as a raw material, then we need to consider what are the different technologies out there. There is a boom of technologies in the market, but at the moment those who are already in the market and scaling up, the majority of them can only use 100% cotton which can be used to turn back into high quality materials. But more blends are also coming in. Post-consumer waste cannot be sorted yet so accurately by composition on a large scale.

“Given that, there is a technological gap there. Also, recycling needs to know the background story of the material so that we know what chemicals are going into the garments. We need to know where those materials come from, and recyclers need to know the exact composition. Industrial waste is a low-hanging fruit to help the recycling industry to emerge first and then help scale that up to other blended materials. What we’re looking at is reorganising these material waste flows on a global level. Textile-to-textile recycling in Europe is consuming a lot of industrial waste from Asia now and Asia is importing post-consumer waste but can’t consume all of it. We need to be able to localise recycling and we need to know which materials are matching with which technologies.

“The launch of a recycling industry or the circulation of fibre requires market insights and data which is missing. International statistics on textile material usually are about the dollar value of garments, but there aren’t enough statistics to understand how much is cotton, how much is cotton-elastane blend. All these questions are crucial for those large recycling plants that are interested in setting up production. The first challenge therefore for us was to map and start generating live accurate statistics instead of single surveys where the data gets outdated very fast.”

And, with new legislations coming up, Runnel feels “we need to know where our products are being produced. We also need to find solutions on what to do with the waste we generate with production. The majority of our collections are being produced in Bangladesh.

Quader feels the need to be pragmatic about the opportunity in each country. “In Bangladesh, most brands don’t have retail operations. There are restrictions on foreign retail here. So, what is available in abundance is lots of pre-consumer cotton waste. It’s a unique situation because so much of it is cotton, and so much of it can be turned into something super-valuable. The post-consumer discussion is important and relevant in many different countries.

“We as a company are thinking of how we can design products so that they can be taken apart; so that they can be recycled more easily. At present, for Bangladesh, the focus needed to be on the pre-consumer post-production waste that exists in abundance. It is such a lost opportunity that 90% of it gets shipped to India for recycling and then we buy it back. It’s great to have partners like Cyclo in Bangladesh that are leading the way, taking risks, and showing that it can be done in a profitable and scalable way.”

Cyclo Director Mustafain Munir joins the conversation: “We have been doing this for single spinning at our factory for 11 years. At the start, it was like a ‘junk in, junk out’ proposition but we had the foresight to hold on. We use mechanical recycling. We have already maxed out our built capacity, and right now the problem is getting new machines and expanding quickly enough to match the demand. The next factory should be ready in about a year and a half, and it will be twice the size of our existing one. There is an opportunity to look at other waste streams—what are the better recycling technologies that can handle blends and especially what’s happening with cotton-elastane which is a nightmare for all recyclers.

“Since a dialogue is already on between brands and recyclers, for spinners like us who do the recycling and spinning—we are learning continuously what the quality constraints are and for which products recycled cotton is best adapted to. With that in mind, in a few years we can adapt—let’s say—a chemical recycling technology. For a lot of people, it’s the tip of the iceberg. It’s an exciting time for us, and we have no shortage of opportunities.”

Note: This report is based on the side session of the 2022 OECD Forum on Due Diligence in the Garment and Footwear Sector titled 'Exploring the potential to capture and reduce resource dependency through circular fashion systems in garment manufacturing countries'.
 
 
  • Dated posted March 24, 2022
  • Last modified March 27, 2022