Lounais-Suomen Jätehuolto Oy (LSJH) has launched a refinement plant pilot in Turku, focusing on the recycling of post-consumer textiles. The objective is to ensure a recycling solution for all the end-of-life textiles generated in Finland. The refinement plant project has been prepared in cooperation with other Finnish municipal waste management companies and the national Telaketju network. One of the key development targets in the plant project has been to ensure high-quality sorting, based on fibre composition. Soon different textile fibres can be distinguished with near infrared (NIR) identification technology, developed for the purpose. Identification technology will take the European textile recycling potential an enormous stride forward.
Presently, Lounais-Suomen Jätehuolto (LSJH) is preparing for the pilot stage of the refinement plant, which will step up textile circular economy. At the plant, the end-of-life textiles collected from private households will be mechanically processed by opening up the fabrics to create recycled fibre. The tendering of the pilot plant processing line is in progress and the award decision will be made in the coming few weeks. The goal of the pilot stage is to ensure that the fibre produced by the refinement plant can be utilised on a larger industrial scale. The future goal is to set up a full-scale refinement plant, which will have the capacity to process all the post-consumer textiles in Finland, offer processing services for the industrial side flows and textile waste, as well as potentially receive and process end-of-life textiles from the Baltic Sea region.
Identification Technology Guarantees High-Quality Sorting
Both in Finland and elsewhere in Europe thus far, end-of-life textiles have been sorted manually, whereby the materials are identified by their label information, i.e. laundry tags. However, the laundry tags may be inaccurate, or they may have been removed or worn out. The industry manufacturing new products from recycled fibre must be certain about the contents of the used raw material. The optical identification technology now being developed will improve the accuracy of fibre material identification, thus improving the quality and added value in the final recycled fibre products.
LSJH has been developing the identification technology in cooperation with the Lahti University of Applied Sciences (LUAS) and the equipment supplier, Spectral Engines.
“Identification technology based on spectral infrared identification is familiar, for example, in the area of plastics sorting, but it is new to textile recycling,” says Jaakko Zitting, a project engineer developing the identification technology at LSJH. “Developing the technology into a tool that is suitable for textile sorting has included e.g. collection of large amounts of spectral data and the creation of an identification algorithm. A hand-held infrared scanner helps to combine the benefits of manual and automatic sorting and enables us to distinguish between the most recyclable monomaterials from numerous fibre blends.”
Business Product Development: The Precondition of Textile Recycling
The identification technology is being introduced at the LSJH end-of-life textile sorting over the course of this autumn. With the addition of new identification devices, the sorting practices can be developed in preparation of an fibre opening line to be introduced next summer. Materials, such as cotton or viscose, which have been separately sorted by means of the identification device, will then be fed to the opening line, which will cut the textiles and open their fibres.
“This will result in recycled fibre, which businesses can further process as a raw material into various new products,” says Sini Ilmonen, circular economy specialist and project manager at the LSJH. “Fibres of the highest quality may qualify for the manufacturing of yarn and further into new clothing. Other applications, such as composite products and acoustic/insulation material can be made from the recycled fibre as well.”
During the pilot stage, the intention is to proceed from manual sorting towards an automated identification line, which would enable processing of larger volumes of end-of-life textile flows.
“End-of-life textiles have been collected in the LSJH area for a number of years already,” says Sini Ilmonen. “Now we have proceeded to the stage where we can identify the materials and further process them. It is pointless to collect and process fibres, however, if we fail to locate enough businesses that use recycled fibre in their products. Textile recycling is possible only if the whole textile value chain is aligned with circular economy, meaning that the fibre will be used to make genuinely new products for the markets. So it is of paramount importance to locate and mobilise businesses that are willing to start developing new products by utilising recycled fibre.”
The refinement plant project involves many valuable industrial cooperation partners, such as TouchPoint, Pure Waste Textiles Oy and Infinited Fiber Company – all of which have actively engaged in the Telaketju network. The close product development cooperation with numerous textile companies has the support of the national Telaketju 2 project, launched this summer. Financing for the refinement plant development is currently being provided by Finnish municipal waste management companies and by the Ministry of Employment and Economy. The pilot plant was granted 1.5 million euros in investment aid by Business Finland.