China’s ban on textile scrap import hampers global recycling programmes

As a stepping stone, textile companies have taken the onus on themselves to ensure sustainable development. While on the other hand, a new ban on scrap textile imports in China could curb global textile recycling progress

In one of the first initiatives, a recent life-cycle assessment (LCA) of a waterborne polyurethane (PU) technology, Insqin, created by the high-tech polymer company Covestro, has been found to reduce the carbon footprint of textile coating by 45 % compared to conventional solvent-based technology. Nick Smith, Global Head of Textiles and Coatings at Covestro, says LCA provides an extra layer of assurance in the environmental performance of INSQIN. It shows brands that this technology can help them reach sustainability targets. Achievements in carbon footprint reduction will be important to not only fashion and sportswear brands, but also the automotive and furniture industries.

The study

The study compared a comprehensive range of parameters to assess the environmental performance of waterborne PU from extraction of raw materials to coated fabric production versus that of the conventional technology, which involves the use of the solvent dimethylformamide (DMF). The results showed for LCA, 1,000 square metres of PU synthetic made with Insqin has a global warming potential of 6900 kg CO2-eq, compared to 127000 kg CO2-eq in the case of solvent-based PU leather. This implies that it makes perfect sense for the entire textile industry to switch to using this waterborne PU technology.

Around 85 % of Insqin’s global warming potential is due to the lower energy consumption of the dry textile coating process that is enabled by the waterborne PU and that replaces conventional wet processing. Using Insqin to coat textiles with PU also has the potential to reduce acidification of water and soil resources by 20 % compared to conventional options. The technology also uses 95 % less process water than traditional technologies.

Lydia Simon, Global Sustainability Manager for Coatings, Adhesives and Specialties at Covestro, highlighted that life cycle thinking is crucial if we are to overcome key challenges of the future and push sustainability. Life cycle studies help to quantify the potential of technologies to reduce environmental impacts and thus contribute to more sustainable solutions.

Bad news

Now for the bad news, China has banned import of textiles scraps under the guise of reducing pollution despite the growing popularity of using scrap textiles to bolster industry circularity initiatives. After this move, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) has filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO). According to ISRI, such a move could impede progress on global textile recycling and prevent China’s manufacturing sector from accessing valuable recyclable materials and minimise other opportunities for recycling.

ISRI fully supports the efforts of the Chinese government to improve environmental protection and standards within its domestic recycling infrastructure. However, the organisation disagreed that a ban on the import of specification-grade scrap materials will help with those efforts. For recycled commodities such as recovered paper and fibre, plastic scrap and copper scrap, China accounts for more than half of the world’s total imports, the organisation noted. With more than $5.2 billion in scrap commodities exported from the US to China last year alone, the trade in specification-grade commodities between the US and China is of critical importance to the health and success of the US-based recycling industry and China’s manufacturing sector, said ISRI. If implemented, a ban on scrap imports will result in the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and the closure of many recycling businesses throughout the US.