Series: Green upheaval: Tree fiber instead of cotton: Green textiles in the fight against climate change
Vienna In the small town of Lenzing in Upper Austria, when long blocks of wood are being chopped up into snippets with a deafening noise, it is not immediately apparent that materials for shirts, trousers and pullovers are being produced here. The Lenzing Group, which is the name of its location, stacks tons of the renewable raw material on the factory premises. And all of them are ultimately processed into one: yarn.
Huge forklifts drive the wood across the extensive factory premises. Workers with hearing protection monitor how the tree pieces are cut into smaller and smaller by machine axes. The cellulose is removed from this chaff in a hall. And that is spun. The company calls the textile fiber Tencel, which is said to be a more climate-friendly alternative to polyester and cotton. Lyocell is the generic term.
100 million tons of fibers are produced worldwide every year, about a million of them at Lenzing. A proportion that is still too small, says company boss Stephan Sielaff. “The cellulose fiber is the group of fibers that grows the fastest. That’s why we also want to grow with our production.” Approaches to solutions for the textile industry and the excessive consumption of clothes are essential for the fight against climate change.
The industry produces a lot of mass, which often quickly ends up back in the garbage. The Ellen McArthur Foundation calculated that this model, supported by international corporate chains, causes more greenhouse gases than aviation and shipping combined. She speaks of a total of four billion tons of CO2 emissions per year.
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This accounts for eight percent of all CO2 emissions worldwide. Textiles are also responsible for 35 percent of all microplastics in the ocean and generate 92 million tons of waste every year. In addition, there are some toxic chemicals that are used for production and then end up in the waste water. So far, only about one percent of old clothes is recycled. Mountains of clothing are often simply burned.
About 65 percent of all textile fibers worldwide consist of synthetic fibers, i.e. plastic. According to the Ellen McArthur Foundation, around 98 million tons of oil have been used to produce these fibers since 2015, and by 2030 it is expected to be 300 million tons.
Sustainably manufactured fibers for clothing, such as those marketed by Lenzing, currently make up less than ten percent of the global textile market. Old PET bottles are often used for sustainably produced plastic fibers – critics complain that this in turn does not help the recycling of the textiles themselves.
Use pollutant as raw material
With the wood-based specialty fibers, Lenzing wants to create a scalable alternative to oil-based plastic fibers. This year, the company opened a manufacturing facility in Thailand, which is expected to produce 100,000 tons of biodegradable fibers. According to boss Sielaff, the demand for environmentally friendly special fibers is constantly increasing, and by 2024 the company wants to achieve 75 percent of fiber sales with ecological fibers.
In Thailand, too, the cellulose is removed from the wood and used as a raw material for the textile fibers. The chemical, called NMMO, that is then used to dissolve the pulp can be reused, according to Lenzing. “In this way we help to close the material cycle,” says Sielaff. Then a honey-like paste is forced through nozzles with more than 100,000 holes, resulting in the fibers. “If you took the fibers and buried them in the garden, they would eventually be gone,” says Sielaff. Biodegraded. “Completely different from polyester, for example.”
According to the CEO, a kilo of Lenzing Lyocell fibers costs less than five euros: “The customer doesn’t notice the difference, it’s only a matter of cents.” More than 200 brands currently use Lenzing fibers, including Esprit, Asos, Armed Angels, Levi’s and New Balance.
About 70 percent of the CO2 emissions in clothing production arise from the basic material. Karl-Hendrik Magnus, head of the Apparel, Fashion and Luxury Group at the management consultancy McKinsey, therefore sees a change in many fashion brands. “Cellulosic fibers have great growth potential,” says Magnus, “they offer a better environmental footprint than cotton and can even be cheaper if scaled up.”
One challenge lies in customer acceptance compared to cotton, since many fibers feel different, often unfamiliar. He estimates that in the future the raw material for these fibers will be a mix of sustainably planted wood and increasingly recycled fibres.
Other methods are also promising. In a research project with the RWTH Aachen University, the Dax group Covestro has developed a textile fiber that can be used to partially replace crude oil and create a closed material cycle. They developed a process to use the climate-damaging greenhouse gas CO2 directly as a raw material and convert it in a chemical process.
Accordingly, CO2 is turned into polyurethane, which is pressed into fine threads in a so-called melt spinning process and then processed into yarn. According to Covestro, spinning does not require any chemical solvents. The fashion group Zara released a collection this year with yarn that contains CO2.
Cotton from cotton waste
The Finnish company Infinited Fiber Company, on the other hand, produces fibers from cotton textile waste. Big companies like Zalando, Adidas, Tommy Hilfiger and H&M have already made commitments with the start-up to buy their materials. The company is building a scalable factory in the Lapland region, where full production is expected by 2025.
One of the biggest problems in the textile industry is that too little is recycled, says expert Magnus. This is not due to the fact that there are no technological possibilities: “There are still many challenges in collecting and processing old clothing.” This is due to the fragmented, small-scale structures and the “still mostly manual work processes, because clothing waste has to be sorted according to quality criteria, Buttons and zippers are removed and fiber compositions are clearly identified.”
Other parts of the Green Upheaval series
But there are solutions to this problem too. The VF concern, which owns the brands The North Face, Vans, Timberland and Eastpak, together with the German Society for International Cooperation, the H&M Foundation and the Hong Kong Research Institute for Textiles and Apparel, launched a project called Green Machine. In Cambodia, the consortium is researching how garments made of cotton and polyester can be separated and recycled in an environmentally friendly way.
VF itself employs 70,000 workers in Cambodia for textile production, more than 20 million pieces of clothing come from their factories there, says sustainability officer David Quass. “We wanted to find out how we could establish cycles at the site with the materials in the production facilities,” says Quass.
Throwing away less helps
At an existing manufacturing facility in Cambodia, Green Machine participants have set up a lab where they are investigating which process can best separate the two materials. “We work with an interplay of water, temperature and biodegradable chemicals, which is intended to separate the substance mix,” says Quass. After that, it will be tested whether the recycled polyester is of the same quality as fresh plastic. According to Quass, this should then be used immediately for production, while the loosened cotton should be passed on to agriculture as fertilizer in cooperation.
Burcu Gözet, researcher for circular economy at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, points out that fiber separation with the current technological level is often accompanied by high quality losses: “Currently, fibers can often only be fed into a ‘downcycling’ process.”
Above all, digitization along the value chain could offer advantages here, she says. “A digital product passport could provide relevant information about the components such as fiber mix and chemicals, which could result in automated and more targeted sorting.” This could ultimately simplify recycling.
Aside from innovative fibers that have yet to be scaled up, there are other aspirations in the textile industry. Thrift, fashion rentals and clothing repair shops are becoming increasingly popular. Momox, second-hand online shop for clothing, grew by around 50 percent last year and increased sales by 62 million euros. According to Statista, a sales potential of 2.2 trillion US dollars is forecast for the second-hand fashion market by 2025.
Andrea Neligan, sustainability expert at IW Cologne, explains that the cycle of environmentally harmful fast fashion can be broken quite easily by each individual, even before all innovations are ready for the market. “Consumers can do their bit by shopping more consciously, by buying and selling sustainable or high-quality clothing that can be used longer, or by both buying and selling second-hand clothing.”
More: From climate killer to raw material – Which products are now made from CO2.