At the Transformers conference Kingpins Amsterdam

AMSTERDAM — The Kingpins denim trade fair wasted no time to talk about waste, kicking off its three-day run with a daylong conference dubbed “Garbage: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.”

The catchy title shed light on three types of textile waste: solid, liquid and airborne.

About 40 billion tons of textiles are disposed of every year, including scraps not used during pattern cutting and residue from yarns and linters, which cannot decompose when thrown into landfills, even though they are made of a natural fiber like cotton. “Cotton has a half-life of about 40 days. It will completely decompose in about four months under average natural conditions, but landfills are designed to prevent decomposition, so it accumulates,” said Robert Antoshak, managing director of Olah Inc., adding that cotton was “just a minority in fashion.”

The larger problem lies in synthetics such as polyester, he argued. “Polyester is plastic by another name. Approximately one billion tons exist in the environment. Recycling it only defers waste.”

Terry Townsend, a consultant for the international cotton industry, calculated that 1988 was the last year that cotton constituted more than 50 percent of all fiber in use. That number has remained fairly stable at 24 tons per year. “But cotton has been losing market share to noncottons, which have been growing faster,” currently accounting for 66 tons per year, he observed. “Even if recycled, their molecules persist, and they build and build and build.”

“We need to engage the consumer at the point of sale,” suggested Paul Dietzsch Doertenbach of I:Collect, which per year recycles 17 tons of post-consumer waste such as that old pair of jeans that one can now drop off at an H&M or a Levi’s store. “But this service needs to be offered to all retailers.”

A major obstacle is the cost of logistics, he explained, which can be very high in countries like France, for instance. Also tricky: The recycling of blended fiber, which poses technical challenges, and contamination. “We had T-shirts which have been labeled as 100 percent cotton but were contaminated with polyester. When we pulled the fiber and dyed it, we got small white spots,” said Doertenbach. While most of its recycled product turns into insulation material, cushioning or hard casing, I:CO’s goal is so-called closed-looped recycling or fiber-to-fiber, by which collected denim would turn right back into denim.

The ultimate vision, according to Michael Kininmonth of Lenzing, maker of man-made cellulose fibers, would be to “take the millions of garments, extract the cotton, whereby cotton becomes cellulose that we use to spin into Tencel fiber which then goes into the same retailer’s garments that supplied the cotton. This way one becomes a supplier to the other and vice versa.” Noting that “at least 10 percent (of fabrics) are wasted at the pattern table, that’s where we have to start,” he said.

Other participants offered solutions at the production level where chemical and energy waste are the biggest culprits. Miguel Sanchez of Archroma, which developed a dye method that saves more than 90 percent of water, urged the industry to stop using oil derivatives, which are toxic and not biodegradable, in favor of biosynthetic products from biomass; move away from hypochloride used for bleaching in favor of sustainable options such as laser techniques, and resort to new water-free home washings, since most water in the life cycle of jeans goes to waste at the hands of the consumer.

Sedef Uncu Aki, general manager of Bossa, said mills like hers should think of waste as a resource. “We produce more than 3 billion jeans per year — that’s an outrageous amount of waste,” she said, adding that anything from bale bands to paper cones, which produce seven tons and 20 tons of waste per month, respectively, could be reused.

To reduce slasher waste, Bossa recycles yarn waste in the process and plays with machine speeds and temperatures in spinning, where half of electricity is used. Supposing that a mill on average consumes 4.5 million kWh of electricity, the savings potential is very high, Aki remarked.

Some experts argued that there was a place for every fiber, even polyester, whose rise is due to its performance and durability, but that it’s the volume that makes a difference. “Fast fashion will get a lot more fast before it slows, and this will not be in the next 15 years,” observed Haysun Hahn, fashion consultant and trend forecaster.

‘We have created a culture of instant gratification and of wanting more. That’s the reality. It’s provocative to say, but we should embrace it. With a pair of jeans it’s particularly easy, because denim has a legacy, which means it’s easier to involve the consumer. Do a sustainable pair that people can buy and understand in a fast-fashion way,” she said.