’Recycling is not always sustainable’

Ms. Som, together with your colleagues at Empa, you investigated the environmental impact of an outdoor jacket made of recycled material. One of the results was that the use of polyester from PET bottles does not yield any advantage - perhaps surprisingly for laypeople. Did you expect that?

Even before our study, we had heard from experts in the packaging industry that "bottle PET" would be better left in the bottle cycle for quality reasons. There were even rumors that resourceful entrepreneurs abroad were producing PET bottles not for beverages, but to profit from the high demand for "recycled PET." Therefore, it is necessary to look closely at where the PET comes from and what quality requirement it must meet for a number of recycling loops - especially if many of those are to be achieved.

Recycling and circular economy in the textile sector has long been an issue in politics as well. You recently conducted a survey among Swiss textile companies to explore the potential. What were your findings?

The idea to take a closer look at production waste in the textile industry came to us during a company visit. Although the company tried to reduce waste and find a sensible reuse, a large part of high-value materials ended up being incinerated. Often, companies also remain in the dark about what buyers do with the material. What was interesting for us was that designers can also help to avoid production waste - for example, by tolerating color deviations.

Today, most clothing ends up in incineration or landfills at the end of its life. How high do you estimate the potential for recycling?

From our contacts with Swiss and European industry, we have learned that successful recycling depends on how well you know the composition and quality of your materials. Moreover, large enough quantities are required for the processes to become economical. Today’s clothes that are sometimes made of really wild material mixtures and our "fast fashion" approach with low material quality make successful recycling quite tricky. Thus, we hope that our research on Swiss production waste will contribute to establishing a circular economy faster. After all, in Swiss as well as in European production, the quality of the materials is relatively high, the composition is largely known, and relatively large quantities of the same material are produced.

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