Textile waste is becoming a source of renewable energy

92 million tonnes of textile waste are produced each year. Researchers are finding ways to use it to produce thermal energy.

As a fashion icon of the 20th century, French fashion designer and businesswoman, Coco Chanel, once said, “The best things in life are free. The second-best are very expensive.”

Fashion among most polluting industries

The fashion industry is one of the highest polluting industries in the world, and is, therefore, immensely costly to the planet. For instance, the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions, and for almost 20% of the world’s wastewater. As the UN estimates, one pair of jeans comprises a kilo of cotton, producing which, in turn, needs about 7,500-10,000 liters of water, which amounts to the quantity of water one person consumes in 10 years.

Yulia Omelich, one of the co-founders of sustainable fashion company CODOGIRL gave insight into the industry, “When we think about sustainability, we think about the finite resources and how much pollution we’re causing to the environment, but I also think about cheap labor and how many people are working in extreme conditions in order to keep up with the demand.”

Moreover, as generally happens, when new clothes come on the market, people tend to throw out their old clothes. It has been estimated that the average American generates around 82 pounds of textile annually.

Omelich was visibly vexed. “Can you imagine? People who don’t have enough to eat or sustain themselves, creating these disposable and unnecessary products we call fashion, for a society that prides itself in caring more about their personal appearance than the world we live in?” 

Growing demand for energy and search for sustainable alternatives

As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found in 2018, 17 million tons of textile waste were thrown into landfills that year, making textile waste 5.8% of that year’s total Municipal Solid Waste in the U.S. In fact, one of the textile industry’s main environmental issues is the significant quantities of waste generated during different stages of production.

One study revealed the most amount of solid waste in the textile industry is generated  from spinning waste, weaving yarn waste and fabric off-cuts. Thus, aside from heavy metals and dyes, there are significant amounts of organic matter, phosphorus, nitrogen and micronutrients.

This mostly toxic waste needs proper treatment and management to control environmental and public health consequences. Recycling materials contained in municipal solid waste is generally considered superior to any other waste treatment alternative. 

The development of the circular economy had led Municipal Solid Waste to be listed as a recyclable energy source. Therefore, dumping such waste in landfills is a waste of a potential energy source. One study found that this sludge can be burned, used in agriculture or dried and used for energy creation.

Along these lines, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently found that without throwing this mostly toxic textile waste into landfills, if it was all recycled, the impact on the environment would be similar to preventing carbon dioxide emissions of 7.3 million cars taken off the road.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in its latest International Energy Outlook, stated, that the global demand for energy and energy-related carbon emissions will increase by 47% by 2050, especially in developing countries. Therefore, technological innovation or policy changes are critical, if the anticipated increase in demand is not to be met by fossil fuels.

Omelich said, “We started CODOGIRL to remind everyone to be kinder to the world, and ourselves. It isn’t enough to preach about sustainability, we have to embody it… And if we allow the industry standard to continue fueling our desire for more, it’s never going to happen.”

Energy recovery of textile waste

The municipal waste continuously generated through human activity is considered a potentially viable alternative for non-renewable sources of energy.

One study found the growing interest in using municipal waste as a source of energy was not just galvanized by environmental motivation to reduce landfill or to control leachate formation and greenhouse gas emissions, but also to preserve fossil fuels.

This consistent demand for alternative forms of energy to replace fossil fuels, could, therefore, bring about, not only environmental advantages, but also competitive advantages for companies.

The textile industry produces significant quantities of solid waste, which is mostly the biological and primary sludge from wastewater treatment systems, and the debris resulting from the weaving process in the cotton textile industry.  

Landfill is becoming increasingly expensive and with land being in short supply, there is an urgent need to seek alternative solutions for textile waste, especially for energy generation.

Possible new sustainable energy source

One study investigated the energy potential of cotton waste from the textile industry as a renewable source of thermal energy, compared to other alternative fuels like wood chips and wood pellets. The study demonstrated that cotton briquettes can reduce energy costs by 80% when compared to fuel oil, by 75% when compared to wood pellets and 70% when compared to wood chips. Therefore, it appears that cotton waste from the textile industry could become a sustainable economically and environmentally viable alternative to produce thermal energy in the future.

The fashion industry appears to finally have the chance to redeem the damage it has caused the environment. Sustainable fashion goes further than recycling textiles – it may hold huge potential in thermal energy production.