Wool in the Circular Economy

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Given a history of recycling dating back 200 years, it should come as no surprise that wool has a major role to play in re-use and recycling.

In the apparel industry, many eco-friendly initiatives focus on these sustainability strategies. And recent data  demonstrates  that wool brings multiple environmental benefits through the post-use phase of apparel.

Economic as well as Environmental Value

Picking up on the need for a more detailed understanding of the end of life destinations for wool garments, research conducted by the International Wool Textile Organisation (IWTO) and partner Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) has found substantial evidence for positive environmental benefits stemming from the regular recycling and re-use of wool garments.

Wool is already one of the most re-used fibres, accounting for up to 5% by weight of total clothing donated by consumers for recycling and re-use according to recent studies. This is substantially higher than wool’s share of the virgin fibre supply which is about 1.3%.

Typically, 75% of donated clothes are re-used directly through charities with this second use having no environmental effect from manufacturing. The remaining 25% is recycled through open and closed loop paths.

But one of the reasons for wool’s value as a recyclable is its mature and established closed loop recycling route. Under this system, the mechanical recycling of wool knitwear yields fibres of sufficient length to be carded and re-spun into yarns of pure wool or of blends. These yarns are then converted back into knitwear, providing a cost-effective wool fibre supply in ideal closed loop setting – the ideal recycling path.

The Durability Factor

Due to the high quality and durability of the wool fibre, wool garments are inherently suitable for re-use and recycling. The average life of a wool garment is 2-10 years depending on use, compared to 2-3 years for a typical cotton or synthetic garment. This statistic, incidentally, is not without its own significance: surveys show that consumers use woollen products longer between washes due to wool’s natural ability to keep itself clean or be refreshed by airing, which reduces the energy and water impacts of woollen garments.

This inherent resilience along with durability and high quality make wool a valuable raw material.

The Sustainability Equation

Given wool’s propensity for recycling and established pathways, wool presents a substantial commercial opportunity for take-back schemes or other collection innovations.

Garment collection rates in many developed countries have already substantially risen, driven by greater environmental awareness. With the advancing traction of the concept of the circular economy, opportunities for further development in this area are set to increase.

Moving Towards a Circular Economy

As the circular economy model is gaining ground, recovery and recycling of materials is a central element of the business model. Therefore it is important for the wool industry to provide up-to-date research and fill in existing data gaps in order to back up this part of wool’s sustainability story.

“IWTO is already seeing an increasing number of questions from members about wool and recycling,” says IWTO President Peter Ackroyd. "Recycling is an ideal environmental option for wool products before they finally biodegrade at the end of life."

Closing the Loop

Even wool garments do eventually come to the end of their lives. If not able to be recycled, it is worth noting that the wool fibre itself is naturally biodegradable.

Part of the natural atmospheric carbon cycle, the carbon in wool comes from plants consumed by grazing sheep, rather than petrochemicals. Because of this, wool easily decomposes at end of life, releasing its valuable nutrients into the ground in a relatively short period, unlike synthetics. In the context of recycling, wool truly closes the loop – bringing yet another advantage to choosing wool.

Read Further

For further details about the collection, recycling and reuse of wool garments in Review of Wool Recycling and Reuse (Russell, Swan et al), part of the publication Natural Fibres: Advances in Science and Technology Towards Industrial Applications