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Automated sorting to increase textiles recycling

Racing against time to close the textile value chain and make it a circular economy, Sweden’s IVL Environmental Research Institute is devising an automated sorting machine that will make sorting a lot speedier and accurate than the manual process. “An automated sorting of textiles makes it possible to manage large streams of textile and at the same time produce sorted textiles that are better adapted to different recycling,” explains Maria Elander at IVL, which is spearheading a project SIPTex that was launched in 2015 to consider the possibility of automated sorting. As of now, textiles that are collected at stores are sorted manually. However is a difficult task to sort clothes and other textiles for recycling, partly because a growing proportion of the textiles consist of mixed materials. Industrial and automated sorting processes, suitable for fibre-to-fibre recycling, are necessary in order to handle large amounts of fabric with high precision, says Elander as SIPTex is poised to enter its second phase. The potential for increasing textile recycling in Sweden is great. Of all the clothing and household textiles sold in Sweden only around 20 per cent are gathered for reuse. Less than 5 pe rcent are recycled. The figures for EU are more dismal: Every year 4.3 million tonnes of textile waste is used in the EU as landfill or incinerated. The goal is to eventually create sorting capacity for 45 000 tonnes of textile recycling, according to an IVL press release. In the first phase of the IVL-led research project SIPTex conducted in 2015, the potential for an automated sorting was examined. The project conducted a small scale testing technique where optical sensors detect different types of materials. It’s the same kind of technology that is used when sorting packages, now used in a new context. SIPTex showed that automated textile sorting has the potential to provide both high sorting rate and a high purity of the sorted textiles. Based on the promising results the project is now moving on to the next step – building a unique test environment for automated textile sorting, the release said. Behind the project is a broad consortium of eleven partners, including IVL research institute, authorities and participants from different parts of the textile value chain. A sorting facility will be leased and operated in Sweden for a year and the facility will handle and sort used textiles that are collected at recycling centres in Stockholm and Malmo. The sorting will be done based on the need of the potential customers. The project will also test and evaluate new possibilities for how to collect textile and textile waste, as well as examine how targeted communication efforts can contribute to an increased textile collection. “The idea is to create a sorting solution that is tailored for the needs of both the textile recycling industry and the textile business. Thus becoming the link that is missing today between textile collection and a high-quality textile recycling,” says Elander.