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Circular Economy for Textiles

Textile waste
Credit: Amanda Forster

Read the NIST report on strategies for increasing textile reuse and recycling. We also recently published a paper assessing the landscape, challenges, and opportunities for textiles in a circular economy.

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  1. Introduction
  2. Contribution to a Circular Economy
  3. Our Team


A circular economy (CE) approach aims to extend the life of textile products through reuse and repair and keep end-of-life (EoL) materials in the economy through recycling. Transitioning to a CE is essential to preserving our natural resources, creating domestic and sustainable growth and jobs, and ensuring our Nation’s security and economic prosperity. Textile production has increased dramatically over recent decades, particularly with the rise of “fast fashion.” Simultaneously, increased production of synthetic fibers such as polyester and nylon due to their cost-efficiency and performance characteristics (e.g., stretch, durability, shrink resistance) has resulted in a large volume of synthetic fibers in textiles produced today. In the current linear economic model, textile products are made, used, and disposed of. In fact, it is estimated that in the U.S., a mere 15% of discarded clothing and textiles are collected for reuse, recycling, or downcycling, while the remainder is sent for landfill and incineration. This represents not only a tremendous loss of economic and material value, but also has significant social and environmental implications.

Key Challenges Facing the Shift to a CE for Textiles Include:

  • Collection infrastructure: the infrastructure and systems for collecting waste textiles are not well established. What does exist is not consistent, convenient, or widespread enough to collect quality (clean, dry) textiles in the quantities needed to retain value.
  • Sorting and grading of textiles relies on expensive manual labor, even though it is not possible to visually identify fiber composition. Fiber content labels may be missing or incorrect, and no harmonized sorting standards or criteria exist, creating more work for downstream markets for waste textiles.
  • Commercial-scale recycling processes for textiles are fiber-type dependent; require pure, reliable, high-volume feedstock; and generally cannot process mixed material inputs (fiber blends, which make up a large fraction of textile production). Separating blends and removing dyes, additives, and finishes (e.g., waterproofing, wrinkle-resistant coatings) often requires or generates hazardous substances that create another need for proper disposal. In addition, only limited recycling processes exist for certain fiber types.
  • Textile circularity is not economical in the current system. Large-scale reuse, repair, and recycling is hindered by high transportation, labor, and processing costs and decreasing quality and cost of new products.
  • Data accessibility is critical for textile circularity. This helps validate claims of economic and environmental impact, life cycle assessment, and helps identify the best strategies for handling post-consumer textiles.
Flow chart showing clothes going from generator to 85% into landfill/incinerator and 15% to donation/collection.
This flowchart shows the fates of used textiles in the United States today. Question marks indicate flows for which reliable data are unavailable. "Shoddy" is a material made from shredded fibers and used for insulation and stuffing. Based on data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Resource Recycling Systems. From NIST Special Publication 1500-207: Facilitating a Circular Economy for Textiles.
Credit: N. Hanacek/NIST

Contribution to a Circular Economy

Addressing these challenges and improving the sustainability and circularity of the textiles industry requires a harmonized, systems-level, collaborative approach. NIST has worked to take the first steps towards a circular economy for textiles by bringing together a wide range of stakeholders included in the textiles CE, both public and private, and across the social and technical disciplines through our recent workshop Facilitating a Circular Economy for Textiles, which is available as a recorded webinar, to discuss the challenge and opportunities in this space. In addition, we recently held a Workshop on Identifying Standards Needs to Facilitate a Circular Economy for Textiles in conjunction with ASTM International and the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists (AATCC). A report on the findings from this workshop will be released in 2024.

In response to the needs identified by these stakeholder engagement efforts, NIST launched a research program to support the development of a circular economy for textiles. The program identified four main pillars of action: 1) Advance Standards and Facilitate Data Sharing; 2) Foster Design for End of Life; 3) Improve Chemical and Mechanical Recycling of Textiles; and 4) Enable Rapid, Efficient Textile Sorting. We are now leveraging NIST’s expertise and capabilities to perform research, support standards development, and collaborate with external stakeholders to fill certain needs in these pillars.

Textile circularity pillars
Four pillars of the Circular Economy for Textiles program.
Credit: Amanda Forster

Advance Standards and Facilitate Data Sharing 

  • Through this pillar, we are identifying standards needed to facilitate a circular economy for textiles, developing a standards roadmap, and beginning to actually develop the standards identified. Our recent Workshop on Identifying Standards Needs to Facilitate a Circular Economy for Textiles discussed the highest priority standards in this field, and the upcoming workshop report will summarize the findings from the workshop with a specific focus on these standards needs. The standards development process involves input from stakeholders across the textiles value chain. Please contact amanda.forster [at] (Amanda Forster) if you would like to get involved.
  • We are also conducting a rigorous meta-analysis of verifiable data about the climate and economic impacts of the textile industry to establish a trusted baseline against which future improvements can be benchmarked. Through the development of the 2021 workshop report, we discovered that there is confusion about the environmental and economic impacts of the textiles industry. For example, the different figures associated with the amount of water required to produce a pair of jeans ranged from 3,781 to 10,000 L. We expect to release a review article on this topic in 2024.

Foster Design for End of Life

This initiative is developing novel materials created with the end-of-life in mind. Polyester (PET) is currently the most commonly used synthetic fiber in textiles. PET is often blended with other materials like cotton and elastane to produce garments with desired properties such as comfort and stretch, but these mixed materials are difficult to reclaim and recycle at the end of their life. This work is synthesizing ‘designer’ PET molecules that have key degradation stimulus incorporated into their chemistry. These designer PETs can be easily degraded through mild conditions into longer building block units instead of the monomeric units achieved through traditional PET chemical recycling. These building blocks could then be linked again to make longer polymer chains, allowing for true fiber to fiber recycling through a hybrid approach that combines both mechanical and chemical recycling concepts.

Textiles design for end of life
'Designer’ PET molecules that have key degradation stimulus incorporated into their chemistry.
Credit: Amanda Forster

Improve Chemical & Mechanical Recycling of Textiles

The goal of this pillar is to develop new, efficient methods of recycling textiles, in particular the ubiquitous poly/cotton/elastane blends, which currently are very difficult to recycle. Both chemical and mechanical recycling processes have disadvantages: chemical recycling requires energy and solvents as additional inputs into the system, while mechanical recycling is either highly labor intensive or yields lower quality/value (or “downcycled”) materials. This advanced mechanical recycling initiative leverages the intrinsic properties of individual fibers within fiber blends to separate them into fiber fractions without using chemicals or high temperatures. This results in purer inputs and higher quality recycled products.

Enable Rapid, Efficient Textile Sorting

This pillar’s goal is to continue to build a near-infrared (NIR) reference dataset for textile fibers and blends to enable rapid sorting and identification of textiles for recycling. We also plan to explore reference materials in this space. This initiative will build upon prior work using commercial fabrics of known materials to create blends of known composition and compare with thrifted “real world” samples. We will also investigate requirements for databases and data tools to ensure the data collected will be of the quality and format required for dissemination to our stakeholders. Expected outputs will be NIR spectra and potentially physical reference specimens that can be used to validate the performance of NIR systems in the field.

Our Team

Amanda Forster
Amanda Forster, Materials Research Engineer, Team Lead
Staff Photo
Charlotte Wentz, Research Chemist
profile photo of Katarina
Katarina Goodge, Research Chemist
Zois Tsinas
Zois Tsinas,  Materials Research Engineer
Kelsea Schumacher
Kelsea Schumacher, Environmental Policy Specialist


Team Lead

Created April 26, 2022, Updated January 8, 2024