Lounais-Suomen Jätehuolto is looking for a solution for recycling end-of-life textiles – the aim is a pilot plant functioning as a product development platform
‘Textile recycling is going through interesting times,’ says Nina Aarras, senior specialist of circular economy at Sweco. From 2025 onwards, an EU directive requires that all end-of-life textiles from consumers must be separately collected. ‘Finland’s current recycling capacity is not enough for quality recycling of end-of-life textiles, but rather the majority of textiles is utilised as energy or sent uncontrollably to third countries.’
As a municipal waste management company, Lounais-Suomen Jätehuolto is responsible for the waste management of the residents in its area, and community waste is already sorted into approximately 30 different waste types. Textiles are one of the last waste types that are not separately collected because the means of recycling them are lacking.
‘Our company has made a strategic decision of investing in the promotion of the circular economy, and therefore we want to tackle the problem of the chicken and the egg and make textile recycling a new industrial sector in Finland,’ says Sini Ilmonen, circular economy specialist at Lounais-Suomen Jätehuolto Oy.
There are currently some textile processing plants in the Nordic countries that manufacture certain recycled products. The company wants to focus on product development.
‘Our goal is not to develop new products ourselves but to offer companies information about end-of-life textiles and provide fibre for the product development needs of the utilisers.’
Market investigation on the potential of recycled textiles
Lounais-Suomen Jätehuolto is first planning on building a pilot plant in Turku in 2020. For the procurement decision and a more detailed plan of the production line, the company wanted to have an investigation of the market situation.
‘We utilised e.g. the information gathered by the Telaketju network on how end-of-life textiles can be processed and refined for reuse,’ Aarras says. The investigation focused on industries that are already utilising recycled textiles because the creation of a new value chain would take years.
‘The investigation work was challenging because the subject is so new,’ Ilmonen says. ‘Sweco’s experts did a lot of background research and offered us a summary of what is happening in the field. Next we can continue to go deeper into the subject. There is much to learn!’
A common goal is to create a market for end-of-life textiles as a valuable recycled raw material that can be used in clothes and composites, among other things. ‘For example, recycled cotton can be used as upholstery fabric in the automotive industry in addition to the clothing industry. A good example of the reuse of waste materials is the Finnish innovation The Other Danish Guy,’ Aarras says.
Sorting a diverse material requires new technology
One of the largest challenges in recycling end-of-life textiles is the diversity of all the textiles. Textiles are mostly sorted by hand based on the labels. The labels do not need to mention materials that the product only contains some per cents of.
‘The most delicate recycling processes handle impurities poorly, and this is why our goal is to develop new identification technologies and thus produce better quality raw materials for the utilisers of recycled textiles,’ Ilmonen says.
It is important in the recycling process to optimise how long the material is worth processing. ‘The solution must be economically profitable, and the processing cannot require too much chemicals, which would reduce the environmental benefits of the recycled material,’ Aarras says.
Circular economy innovations transform side-flows into raw materials
The reuse of textiles has been studied a lot in Finland, and the discussion on the circular economy is active. Although the atmosphere is positive, funding is missing. ‘There are subsidies available for the energy sector and bioeconomy that circular economy projects do not yet have,’ says Ilmonen. ‘In addition to research funding, the government’s support is needed in circular economy investments.’
The promotion of the circular economy simultaneously requires the development of legislation, environmental awareness and new business ideas.
‘We at Sweco want to promote the circular economy by producing information that helps to steer industry to the right markets,’ Aarras summarises. The result may be new applications for the waste and side-flows of production or completely new business opportunities. Often the solutions also help save costs. ‘The material flow that previously only caused expenses could, with the right processes, be processed further into raw materials, which would turn the expenses into profits.’