The beginnings of the clothing recycling industry

Transforming old clothes into new fabrics for Quebec designers, upholstery for furniture or insulation for homes, this is not yet common in Quebec. The nonprofit Renaissance, which received 17,500 tons of clothing in the past year, wants to fix it within the next two years.

In a large warehouse in Mount Royal, a machine transforms children’s coats, dresses and sweaters into dozens of 900-pound bales, which are then stacked. This is 20% of donations received by the Renaissance organization which, after being put on the shelves of thrift stores and the liquidation center, did not find a taker.

The majority of these multicolored bundles will be bought by brokers, who will send them in particular to foreign countries. “There is a market, throughout the world, to buy back the remnants of the rich countries”, explains the general manager of Renaissance, Éric St-Arnaud.

But inevitably, these clothes will end up in the landfill, whether it be here, in another province or in another country, laments Mr. St-Arnaud. Some reports have also shown images of mountains of clothing in landfills in Africa, mainly from Western countries.

Renaissance would rather like these clothes to be recycled in Quebec. This is the content of the research and development project that they have just launched with funding of $ 500,000 from the City of Montreal. To do this, they have established a partnership with the clothing research and innovation center Vestechpro.

Developing technologies

For the moment, in the province, the post-consumer textile recycling sector is practically non-existent, recognizes Recyc-Quebec. But Renaissance and Vestechpro want to draw inspiration from emerging technologies in Europe, including at the European Center for Innovative Textiles. Although there are chemical recycling processes, the Quebec project will be limited to mechanical techniques. The organisms have just received a defibrator, which will initially reduce the tissue to a fiber state.

“It becomes fluff. It’s like a ball of fibers that you can use for stuffing, ”explains Vestechpro’s general manager, Paulette Kaci.

The Stuffing Materials and Upholstered Articles Act prohibits in Quebec the use of recycled fibers in couches, mattresses, stuffed animals and any other plump article, for consumer protection reasons. But this law must be nullified by Bill 103, which was tabled in early October. This pleases Mme Kaci and M. St-Arnaud, who believe that padding could be a first outlet for old clothes.

Other machines will then make it possible to transform the fluff into felts, veils and threads, according to different degrees of difficulty. “We want to see what works or not, what types of fabrics we are able to make and what are the outlets in each category”, indicates Mme Kaci.

The instigators of the project imagine providing fabrics for large clothing chains, and insulating material, construction companies. You need customers who will need large volumes for many years. “You can take jeans and make saddlebags out of them, but we cannot make three million saddlebags,” recognizes Mr. St-Arnaud.

Pioneering work

The Renaissance project is very important, believes Marianne-Coquelicot Mercier, independent consultant in the circular economy in the textile industry. She stresses that textile recycling projects in Quebec have so far died or remained modest.

“They’re going to experiment and pave the way. We don’t have the choice to go through it. We have so many clothes to recycle. It is important to have infrastructure here, to take advantage of the value that these fibers can have ”, underlines Mercier. Several other community clothing salvage organizations, which receive more donations than they resell, could be inspired, she believes.

One of the great difficulties will be to sort through the different materials in order to treat them adequately. “There are clothes made with mixed fibers in all kinds of ways. A little polyester, a little acrylic… but also, clothes with leatherette sleeves and a cotton body, jackets with the outside in wool and the inside in acetate ”, gives M as an Mercier. This is without counting the buttons, metal zippers and decorations that adorn the accoutrements.

Interest in the fashion industry

The Quebec fashion industry will undoubtedly be interested in sourcing recycled textiles in Quebec, assures the general manager of the MMODE cluster, Debbie Zakaib. The group is participating in the organization, on October 20, of the forum En mode circularité. Solutions for a green recovery of the sector.

“The registrations are incredible. There is really an interest in finding solutions to be more eco-responsible ”, underlines Mme Zakaib.

However, there are limits. “Designers can’t buy thousands of yards of rolls and they don’t want to end up with the same print as everyone else,” she says. In addition, consumers might expect a higher price, but even if they want to be eco-responsible, they are not prepared to pay double. “

According to Recyc-Québec figures from 2019-2020, textiles account for about 6% of the materials that end up in landfill. So there is great untapped potential. The organization recalls that textile recycling projects are eligible for funding of up to $ 100,000.

Several speakers point out, however, that the most effective way to reduce these ecological consequences is to consume less and better. Each Quebecer buys an average of 40 kg of new textile per year, according to a November 2020 report from MUTREC, “a group of researchers and organizations whose mission is to support the transition of the Quebec textile industry towards a circular economy” .

One aspect of the Renaissance project is, moreover, to educate citizens about more responsible consumption, in particular through the purchase of used clothing. If the organization ends up making more sales and even receiving fewer donations, it won’t complain.

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