Closing the Loop on Textile Waste

Open loop, closed loop, natural loop, mechanical loop. Are we talking about roller coasters or advanced knot tying? Unfortunately for the thrill seekers and sailors in the audience, it’s neither. If you’re a fellow recycling buff, you’ve come to the right place.

Understanding open and closed loops are key to our collective work towards a solution to protect and sustain a world with limited resources. Natural and mechanical loops — both parts of closed loop systems — refer to the type of materials products are made with. Open and closed loops determine how long those materials will be used and reused. 

Let’s break it down: 

Open loops are always finite.

Materials in an open loop or linear model won't be used indefinitely and will eventually end up in the landfill. This includes high quality products that simply become unwanted, obsolete or non-functional. These materials may go beyond a single use through upcycling, recycling or downcycling but will eventually end up in a landfill or incinerator. Anything can end up in an open loop, with common culprits being cell phones and clothes.

Sadly, most of our clothing is part of an open loop where they’re simply discarded and enter the waste stream. In the United States, for example, the recycling rate for clothing and footwear is only 13% (US EPA 2020), burdening our planet with over 17 million tons of textile municipal waste annually. To put that in a grim perspective of overall global impact, consider the estimated 100 billion garments produced annually (McKinsey 2020).

Once tossed in the landfill, clothes made entirely of natural fibers will break down in about two years while releasing methane and CO2 gas into the atmosphere. Synthetic fibers are not designed to decompose and can release toxic substances into groundwater and surrounding soil as they enter the waste stream. In both cases, these materials can be integrated into a closed loop system. 

Closed loops are designed to be perpetual and infinite. 

Materials in a closed loop are used over and over again. Through a system of upcycling and downcycling, this cradle to cradle method allows a material to either stay in its current form as a a component of a new, higher value product (upcycling), converted from the used product back into a raw material (downcycling), or converted into energy during a waste-to-energy process. Basically, a circular supply chain. Aluminum beverage cans are an example.

Both natural loops and mechanical loops can be part of a closed loop system.

  • Natural Loops
    Materials in a Natural Loop are organically based.  In the apparel industry this would include natural fibers such as cotton and wool. These materials, if collected at end of life, can be sorted, shredded into fiber, cleaned, and respun to be used again as part of a closed loop system.

  • Mechanical Loops
    Materials in a mechanical are synthetic rather than organic. Polyester, rayon, and other petroleum-based fabrics fall into this loop. These materials, if collected at end of life, can enter a closed loop system by being shredded, granulated into chips, then melted to create new fibers. Ultimately, these materials do degrade over time through downcycling but can still be converted in a waste-to-energy conversion process (we’ll dig into this in a later post).

Looptworks was founded to use both natural and mechanical loops to create a closed loop system in the textile industry. Together with our partners, we’re working to collaborate on and improve these processes. Ultimately, we envision a future where closed loops will be the standard in apparel production, not the exception.


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