Discovery RIVM (Netherlands National Institute for Public Health and the Environment): recycling clothing is not dangerous
By: Anna Roos van Wijngaarden
A good intention from the government: that all new textiles in the Netherlands must consist of 30 percent recycled material by 2030. But that is only possible if it is also safe. RIVM conducted (meta) research into this.
Increasing safety requirements for chemicals in textiles are putting pressure on clothing brands. They want to focus on recycled fabrics, but often do not know exactly where that material comes from. This makes it difficult to estimate whether their new products contain hazardous chemicals. There is a real chance that old textiles contain substances that have now been banned.
To estimate the environmental and health risks of recycled textiles, RIVM delved into the chemical composition of used clothing, which may or may not be suitable for recycling. The order comes from the Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA).
Recycled textiles are not allowed on the shelves just like that. Whether it concerns sheets, curtains or blouses, products must comply with European legislation for chemical substances. More and more such substances are being banned because they have negative effects on the environment and human health. For example, the Netherlands is involved in the process of getting the PFAS group of over 10,000 substances on that list.
Recycled clothing is safe
The report contains a summary of twelve studies on the chemicals in discarded clothing. The conclusion of this meta-research is that (partly) recycled clothing most likely meets the safety requirements of newly produced textiles.
The most valuable study was a large project led by H&M and Ikea, which specifically looked at clothing waste that had already been set aside for recycling – not all waste is suitable for this purpose. The worldwide known AFIRM Restricted Substances List was used as a guideline for safety. This list contains hazardous substances such as lead, nickel, and so-called 'AZO dyes' for which strict rules apply in the production of clothing and textiles.
Hazardous (sometimes prohibited) substances were only found to a very small extent (1 to 2 percent). Exceptions are the substances DEHP (carcinogenic) and cadmium (causes kidney damage), which occurred in 25 and 17 percent of the samples. But because recycled material is almost always mixed with about 50 to 75 percent new material, the concentration of such a substance in a new garment is negligible.
Thousands of chemicals are used in the production of textiles and some of them remain – intentionally or unintentionally – in the final product. The user of a garment comes into close contact with these sometimes hazardous substances, which can have consequences for health. That is why it is important that all textiles that go into recycling are checked for this. And that is quite a challenge.
RIVM immediately mapped out the recycling process of old clothing in the Netherlands, albeit with data from 2018. In that year, the Dutch threw away 305 kilotons of textile waste (clothing, shoes, bed linen), more than half of which ended up in the incinerator. There was also a piece of import of 98 kilotonnes, and yet only 39 kilotonnes, so less than 10 percent of all that textile waste, was recycled in our own country - usually low-grade, for example into insulation material or felt. Only high-quality fiber-to-fiber recycling fits into the circular economy that the Netherlands is striving for, i.e. in a closed cycle. Worldwide, that category is now just 1 percent.
Not all old clothing ends up in the recycling circuit. Of the 40 items that every Dutch person throws away every year, 25 items end up in household waste instead of in the textile container.
Policy makers need to build tools
To guarantee the safety of recycled textiles, policymakers should build tools for the industry, RIVM advises. Then brands and their suppliers know how to find out the chemical composition of their (partly) recycled products and consumers can go along with the transition to circular clothing without any worries.
RIVM also identifies a need for more research, for example into the sorting process. For example, products that contain a lot of chemicals, such as functional jackets, can be deliberately kept out of the recycling loop. The data on the chemicals in clothing and the composition of textiles could also use a boost.
The growing mountain of textile waste in the Netherlands requires a small revolution in waste processing involving collectors, sorters and producers. Safe recycling is the first viable step.