Rags to Resources

*Sources:, the Environmental Protection Agency, World Bank. Photo: Caitriona Rogerson for Textile Mountain

Textile waste is the USA’s fastest growing waste stream. Fast fashion companies encourage over-consumption with cheap clothing that is trendy one day, trash the next.  

• Zara produces 450 million garments, with 20,000 new styles each year. Shein releases a whopping 6000 new styles a day.

• 100 billion garments are produced globally each year, generating 92 million tonnes (metric tons) of textile waste going to landfills or incineration.

• In the USA alone, 11.3 million tons of textile waste, representing 85 percent of our discarded apparel and textile products, winds up in landfills.*

Circular textile-to-textile recycling of unsold and post-consumer apparel and textiles would not only keep these items out of the landfill, but also be a way of monetizing waste. “By moving to a circular system, the industry can unlock a USD 560 billion economic opportunity,” states the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Phototonic fibers could enable easier textile sorting. 
Roadblocks to Circular Recycling

The profitable collection and sorting of used post-consumer textiles has always existed in the industry, but on a local level, with wearable garments shipped overseas, and the remainder shredded for rags and shoddy. A report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation points out that on a global scale, less than one percent of used clothing is recycled into new garments.

“There’s a big secondhand textile market in the U.S. It just hasn’t been focused on the recycling for textiles,” explains Karla Magruder, founder of Accelerating Circularity, a nonprofit developing new supply chains and business models to turn spent textiles into raw materials. “There are now initiatives, like ours and others, that are working with companies to change how the materials are sorted for their next life.”

Created in 2020, Accelerating Circularity researches, maps, and reports on the textile recycling infrastructure in the U.S. and Europe, and is trialing textile-to-textile recycling in both polyester and cellulosic materials.

Collecting, sorting, and aggregating used clothing and other post-consumer textile waste is at the heart of textile-to-textile recycling; but efforts in the U.S. lag behind that of the European Union. “There have historically been fewer incentives and regulations in terms of textile recycling in the U.S. This has caused a significant lag to emerge in terms of the technologies available and the amount of players in the space,” explains Constanza Gomez, CEO and co-founder of Sortile, a New York-based, textile waste management technology.

“In addition, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policy is actively being discussed at an EU level and already in place in multiple European countries. This provides much needed investment and funds into the core collection, sorting and recycling infrastructure in those countries that is severely lacking in the U.S,” she continues.

Successful municipal textile waste collection schemes in U.S. cities are few and far between. “Municipalities, for the most part, do not collect textiles in the U.S.,” points out Gomez. “Textile collection is done by either for-profit or non-profit companies dedicated to this endeavor.”

Focusing on Collection and Sorting

“We are focusing on collection as the key to unlocking circularity,” explains Kabira Stokes, CEO of Retrievr, a for-profit recycler of textiles and electronics in Philadelphia and its surrounding area. Chosen by Philadelphia to pilot separate textile and electronic waste collection in 2020, Retrievr diverted 71,991 pounds of clothing from the city’s landfills in its first year.

After sorting, around 30 percent of Retrievr’s textile waste is resalable; the remainder is downcycled into rags, insulation, or stuffing. The company is exploring partnerships with brands and downstream recyclers for fiber-to-fiber recycling technologies. “Circular recycling is still in its start-up phase, and investments will have to be made,” Stokes continues. “We need the feedstock for these emerging technologies.”

Retrievr is part of NYC-based Circular Services, which operates twelve recycling facilities and provides circular materials management for municipalities and businesses throughout the U.S. Circular Services and Retrievr, along with an innovation center called Center for the Circular Economy, are all funded by financial services company Closed Loop Partners.

SuperCircle incentivizes consumers to recycle clothes. 
Bridging the Retail to Recycling Gap 

The creation of quality feedstock for textile-to-textile recycling requires identification and separation of textile waste by fiber and color. Manual sorting can no longer cope with the growing volume, and can be inaccurate, as labels are often missing or incorrect. The use of near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS), a technology that can identify fiber composition and color, has been a game-changer in automating the separation of textile waste.

Sortile uses NIRS and unique algorithms to scan and identify the fiber composition of textile waste, with a five times increase in productivity. Launched in 2021 by Gomez and co-founder Agustina Mir, both Columbia University graduates, the startup won GreenBiz Group’s Circularity 22 Accelerate competition.

“Our current customers for the sorting technology are collection and sortation companies in North America. We charge them an upfront fee for our sorting device, and a monthly subscription for our data services,” explains Gomez.

“Additionally, we are expanding our customer base to other stakeholders in the industry with our software and data services that enhance circularity and transparency. We recently launched a pilot program for brands, offering them traceability of their materials including volumes processed, categories they are sorted for, end markets, impact measurements, etc.”

Launched in 2018, NYC-based SuperCircle is a technology and reverse logistics platform that bridges the gap from retail to recycling. Working with brand partners such as Reformation, Tentree, MATE the Label, Thousand Fell, and QE Home, the company incentivizes consumers to send back unwanted clothes; then by plugging into its brand partners’ websites, SuperCircle pulls in order management history to understand product data and fiber breakdown for the returned items.

“When a customer recycles through a SuperCircle takeback program, they receive credit back at the brand they recycled that can be used on their next purchase,” explains Stuart Ahlum, the company’s co-founder and COO. The garments received by SuperCircle are sorted and aggregated by material/fiber type/composition and other key recycling factors in their own warehouse.

“When we take back items, we find the best solution for that material to ensure a responsible and traceable end of life solution for the item. SuperCircle works within the waste hierarchy, receiving, sorting, and identifying items that are not ready for circular recycling, and working with resale partners to ensure that item enters a resale market,” Ahlum continues.

“Once enough material of a certain kind has been collected (think 10,000+ cotton t-shirts), our recycling partners will ensure that the material that can be taken fiber-to-fiber will make its way into new yarn and eventually textiles. The rest will be recycled, open loop into other mixed-use items.”

Bringing Circular Recycling to Scale

The current business model is unlikely to change until there is enough fiber-to-fiber textile recycling here in North America to create demand for sorted feedstock. But interest is growing. 

According to the McKinsey State of Fashion 2022 report, “As an increasing number of fashion players commit to circular materials, scaling will be essential in collection, sorting and recycling. However, the rollout of industrial processes will drive down prices and boost demand for garments made from circular materials.”

Fashion for Good recently launched The Sorting for Circularity USA Project, which will survey and analyze textile waste generated in the U.S. in order to understand and evaluate the business case for textile-to-textile recycling.

In a press release, Katrin Ley, managing director at Fashion for Good, stated, “The U.S. presents a great opportunity with the potential for incredible positive impacts, considering the volume of the consumer market and post-consumer textiles landscape.”

Tomra’s fully automated textile sorter uses NRIS.
The European Approach to Textile Waste

• EU legislation already mandates separate collection of textile waste by member states beginning in 2025.

• The EU Waste Framework Directive’s 2023 revision includes EPR, which makes producers responsible for the end-of-use phase of their products and includes economic incentives.

• The European Commission is likely to propose mandatory targets for the reuse and recycling of textiles in 2024. The Commission is pushing for a coordinated approach across the EU to streamline the process and create an economy for collating, sorting, repair and reuse of old textiles. 

• Several European companies have already developed textile sorting machines driven by NIRS. These include Valvan Fibersort (Wieland Textiles, Belgium, 2018); Spectral Engines’ Nirone scanner (LSJH, Finland, 2019); and Tomra/Stadler Autosort (Sysav SIPtex, Sweden, 2022).

• The UK’s largest charity-owned textile collector, The Salvation Army, is trialing the Fibersort machine to help identify and valorize the 60,000 tonnes of textile donations it receives each year. SATcol, the trading arm of The Salvation Army, diverts over 250 million items per year away from landfills by repurposing them.

Legislation, U.S. Recycling and a Circular Model

• California’s proposed Responsible Textile Recovery Act of 2023 would establish a program for the collection and recycling of any apparel or textile article unsuitable for reuse. It will make textile producers and stakeholders responsible for dealing with the repair or recycling of unusable textile products, keeping them out of landfills.

• Signed into law in 2023, the New York State Carpet Bill requires carpet manufacturers to establish a program for the collection and recycling of discarded and unused carpeting. New York State generates about 515 million pounds of carpet waste annually.