Reforming an ancient industry that touches us all

9 September 2021

A pilot project in Finland could lead Europe towards more sustainable textiles.

“The whole industry is waking up,” says Sini Ilmonen, a Senior Specialist in circular economy and co-creation, who works for South Western Finland’s municipal-owned waste company, Lounais-Suomen Jätehuolto.

“Textiles literally touch us all,” says Ilmonen, “and given that the global fashion industry has been estimated to be the second most polluting industry after oil, it’s high time to search for the best ways to move such a necessary industry towards sustainability.”

New capabilities

The mantra of circular economy, ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ lies at the heart of the work of Ilmonen and her colleagues. Nonetheless, when end-of-life textiles such as clothes discarded by their former owner do come in, the first task is always sorting: What can be reused, what can be recycled, and how?

A new processing plant near Paimio, on the outskirts of Turku, is the first step in a bid to process 12,000 tonnes of end-of-life textiles annually in the very near future – equivalent to about 10% of Finland’s current textile waste.

The pilot production line focuses mainly on household textiles, but a collaboration with a local privately owned company is also adding the processing of textiles from places such as hotels and restaurants, as well as more durable work clothes.

What is in your clothes?
Photo: Vesa-Matti Väärä

The key innovation of the plant is not only its efficient sorting of materials – a locally devised gadget uses infra-red to predetermine the materials in each item of clothing – but moreover in its ability, where necessary, to reduce textiles back down to their raw materials.

“Before we tried, there wasn’t a factory or a plant that could process the textiles back to their raw materials, especially the post-consumer textiles from households,” says Ilmonen.

The plan, and Ilmonen’s main role, is to develop a secondary market for these raw materials, to promote the circular economy, and reduce our reliance on new materials

“Take cotton,” says Ilmonen; “The plants need lots of land, and water. At the same time, globally, that land is needed for food production, especially as a lot of land is getting poorer due to pesticide use. Without focussing on reuse and recycling we’re just going to spread poverty and hunger.”

Future jobs

For Finland, a renewed textile industry would mean an estimated €1 billion investment and almost 17,000 new jobs by 2035, and a strengthened global reputation as a leader in the circular economy and sustainable development.

Sini Ilmonen, a Senior Specialist in circular economy and co-creation
Photo: Vesa-Matti Väärä

To help Finland, Turku and all other European cities get there, Ilmonen says the EU can play a leading role.

“Support from the EU, in terms of funding, could be very beneficial in terms of scaling up projects like ours, and trialling them in other cities and countries. However, even more than this, the EU can have a strong role to play in the market creation,” says Ilmonen. “When we have the recycled fibres, or when a company develops a product that has recycled materials in it, we’re going to need consumers to buy it. Otherwise, all the effort will be for nothing,” she adds.

Indeed, Eurocities has also recently called on the EU to make fashion more sustainable, by among other things, ensuring that used textiles are seen as a valuable resource to create new business and job opportunities, and providing more support to cities to be able to do this.

Main image credit: Vesa-Matti Väärä


Alex Godson Eurocities Writer