New identification technology developed in Turku promotes textile recycling opportunities in Europe. The fibres of old clothing and other textile waste can be used as raw material by the textile industry. They can also be utilised in insulation and various composite materials to replace and strengthen plastic materials.

Research and Development Coordinator Miia Jylhä from Lounais-Suomen Jätehuolto (LSJH) says that in order for materials to be reused, the processors must know exactly what material the fibres offered to them are made of.

‘Identifying materials has been a laborious and uncertain process, as we’ve had to rely on care labels. Some textiles may be missing a care label altogether, the care label may be faded, or the information on the label may be unreliable.’

This situation is now changing thanks to the identification technology developed by LSJH and Lahti University of Applied Sciences that utilises infrared technology. A pilot facility that makes use of the technology will also be built in Turku.

‘The aim is to ensure a recycling solution for all textile waste produced in Finland. We also strive to be able to accept textile waste from other countries bordering the Baltic Sea,’ Jylhä says.

Municipally owned waste management companies are good growth platforms for the circular economy.

Help from an algorithm

Project Engineer Jaakko Zitting from LSJH demonstrates the new technology. He examines an old shirt using a manually operated infrared scanner. A notice appears on his mobile phone screen that the shirt is made of viscose.

‘We have developed an algorithm that tells us whether a textile is made of viscose, cotton, polyester, wool or polyamide, i.e. nylon. In other words, it distinguishes between textiles made of a single material and blended materials.’

In addition to the machine, the identification process also involves a sorting line employee. Among other things, the employee ensures that any clothing that is in good condition and fit for sale does not end up as fibre. The employee also removes items such as jackets with many different textile layers and materials from the sorting line.

‘After identification, any clothing made of the same material is taken to a mechanical fibre recovery line. The spike rollers tear the textiles apart into fibres, which are then baled.’

The operations will be expanded in stages

A pilot facility that utilises the technology will be opened in Turku in summer 2020. It will process roughly 5,000 tonnes of textile waste per year into fibre and for reuse.

‘We are gathering experiences and developing the operations together with processors. The general message that we have received from the industry is that operators want to use recycled fibre as long as there is a sufficient amount of material of consistent quality available,’ Jylhä remarks.

In the pilot phase, the intention is to ensure the utilisation of the fibre produced by the processing facility on a larger industrial scale. After this, the aim is to expand the operation in stages.

Jylhä and Zitting estimate that if all goes according to plan, Turku may have a facility capable of processing all textile waste produced by Finnish households by 2023–2025.

Supported by a national network

The processing facility project has been prepared in cooperation with other Finnish waste management companies and the national Telaketju network, which develops the circular economy of textiles.

The development of the new processing facility is supported by the waste management companies of Finnish municipalities, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment and the Regional Council of Southwest Finland. Additionally, the pilot facility has received investment support from Business Finland, which helps companies become international.

The development of the new processing facility has also been spurred by the EU’s Waste Framework Directive, which requires Member States to collect textile waste.

‘Municipally owned waste management companies are good growth platforms for the circular economy. It is natural for a neutral party to gather private and public operators together to jointly develop new and innovative solutions,’ Miia Jylhä muses.

Text: Matti Välimäki
Images: Ilari Välimäki