Efficient textile fibre recycling will soon begin – Finland is leading the way

Blog post
Ali Harlin,
Mikko Mäkelä

The environmental impacts of the textile industry must be curbed as the textile market continues to grow. New materials and new recycling techniques are crucial – and some of these are now ready for use. In just a couple of years time, Finland will get the recycling wheel spinning and set an example for the rest of the world to follow.

The textile industry is one of the most polluting sectors in the world, and the textile market is expected to grow by as much as 40% over the next ten years. Sustainable textile fibres are therefore urgently needed, and new expertise and technology can help with this – right here in Finland.

The Finnish forest industry and a number of different start-ups will in the next few years be setting up a number of factories where textile fibres can be produced from wood cellulose using new, sustainable methods. At the same time, textile fibre recycling is growing. Finland has excellent process and IT expertise, and these can be combined to effectively recycle textile fibre for the very first time. 

Recycling good quality textile fibre

Recycling of textile fibres will get off to a good start thanks to the separate collection of waste textiles that Finnish municipalities will start carrying out in 2023, two years ahead of the EU deadline. In the same year, large scale mechanical recycling is already likely to be under way in Finland. This process will involve the textiles being carded, meaning that they are ripped up to produce either textile fibre or a fibre mixture. The method does not require water and is highly energy efficient. The quality of the fibre, however, is slightly lower.

In 2024, chemical recycling will also gradually get under way. This will enable the textile fibre to potentially be restored to a state even better than its original one. To date, only polyester has been chemically recycled, but new methods also enable the recycling of natural fibres, and cellulose fibres in particular.

New technology powering textile sorting

Even the best recycling methods can only be brought into use if they are efficient and affordable. At the moment, recycling is slowed down primarily by the laborious identification and sorting of textiles, but within a few years it will be possible to optically identify different textile fibres and their mixtures on the sorting centre conveyor belt. This has already been successfully trialled in small scale tests.

In 2025, when separate collection of textiles will become mandatory in EU countries, Finland's recycling systems will already be leading the way. Will Finland then become a significant producer of recycled textile fibre or leading supplier of recycling technology? We are well positioned for both.

Responsible designers and producers

Top-level technology and separate collection processes cannot solve everything. The key issue in the next few years will be the question of who is responsible for textile recycling. Some EU countries emphasise the producer's responsibility, others look to the retailers.

In either case, the designers themselves have a huge impact. Sustainable, long-lasting, repairable and recyclable textiles are needed in the textile market. The properties and composition of textiles must also be better communicated to consumers and recyclers. In particular, it is important to communicate how much recycled fibre the material contains and how much wear it can withstand.

Ultimately, the most important thing is that consumers are motivated to recycle. Producers, municipalities and companies in the recycling sector must demonstrate that the textiles collected really do follow a sustainable path towards reuse.

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Ali Harlin

Ali Harlin

Research Professor
Mikko Mäkelä

Mikko Mäkelä

Research Professor
Industries