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Episode 67: Is Textile Recovery A Roadmap to Circularity? (Transcript)

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[00:00:00] Liz Bothwell: Hi everyone, welcome to Waste360's NothingWasted! Podcast. On every episode, we invite the most interesting people in waste recycling and organics to sit down with us and chat candidly about their thoughts, their work, this unique industry and so much more. Thanks for listening and enjoy this episode.

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[00:00:25] Liz: Hi everyone. I wanted to remind you that WasteExpo has been reimagined for 2020, it will now be digital, all online. September 14th through the 17th, registration should be live soon. We look forward to delivering the same world-class content that you're used to just from the convenience of your home, office, or anywhere else that you're working these days. Keep a lookout for registration, and we'll see you online soon.

Hi, everyone, this is Liz Bothwell from Waste 360 with Marisa Adler, Senior Consultant for Resource Recycling System, we fondly refer to them as RRS. Welcome, Marisa, thanks for being on the show today.

[00:01:09] Marisa Adler: Hi, Liz, thanks so much for having me. I'm really excited to be here.

[00:01:12] Liz: I can't wait to dig into your background, career, and some exciting projects that you've just launched, but to start, I want to let our audience know that you're one of our beloved first 40 Under 40 winners. It's been so exciting to watch your career, could you give everyone some insight into your background, and how you found the waste and recycling industry?

[00:01:34] Marisa: Yes, absolutely. My background is in natural resource management, and conservation, that's what I studied as an undergrad for my master's program. Then, my goal out of grad school was to work for the New York City Department of Sanitation. As luck would have it, they had an opening at the same time that I was graduating, so I applied. I was very excited that I got the position [chuckles] right before the hiring freeze, actually, in 2008, I got it right under the wire.

I stayed with New York City Sanitation for the next eight years working across all different types of programs from reuse, materials exchange programs, and hazardous waste up through organics, and implementing the organics program. After that, I moved over to resource recycling systems, or like you said RRS. I've been here for about four years, really diving into the topic of textiles among other things like plastic waste, and other topics. 

[00:02:47] Liz: That's great. Like you said, you've worked a lot with municipalities. What's your secret to collaborating well with busy municipalities?

[00:02:55] Marisa: Municipalities, definitely, have a lot on their plate, they don't always have the wide open budgets that they wish they had. One of the successes in working with municipalities, the thing that you always have to remember is it's good to know how they work, having worked in a municipal government environment, I understand how decisions are made, how they operate, and how they make choices around programs.

When you're working in the waste sector and working with municipalities, it's important to be sensitive to what they have to spend money on. A lot of that funds that they're spending is on the collection, and disposal of waste. That, combined with their city-wide goals and diversion goals is a really good foundation for how to enter into a conversation with the municipal sector. We found a lot of success there.

Being able to talk to them in their language, also, giving case examples of where projects have succeeded in the past in similar municipal environments, other cities with similar demographics, and similar population sizes.

[00:04:18] Liz: That's great, I think a lot of people could learn from that. You've also put together programs for waste generators, can you share a little bit about that work?

[00:04:26] Marisa: Yes, absolutely. In my work with RRS, we work with a lot of clients who either have lease diversion goals, or they are looking for more ways to incorporate recycled content into the products that they make. We work with the municipal sector, we work with the private sector, consumer product, goods companies.

When we're working with the municipal sector, we really look at what is their agenda, what's the political agenda, the political environment that they're working within, and then, what are their agency goals and objectives around waste. We work really carefully with them to help craft approaches, and strategies for example, on creating organics diversion programs, citing new facilities, or how to contract with service providers.

On the private sector side, we are looking to work with clients who, for example, may have goals around recycled content. We'll help them do sourcing studies, set strategies that help them determine a plan for how to reach their goals, and identify what some tangible metrics for success could be.

[00:05:51] Liz: That makes sense. I know a labor of love that is ready to launch, you and our RRS are releasing a textile recovery in the US white paper. I can only imagine how long you've been working on this, can you dig into that a little bit, and tell us more about that?

[00:06:10] Marisa: Yes, absolutely. You're right, I've been working on it probably a little too long, longer than I'm embarrassed to see how long I've been working on it. It's been a topic that RRS has been investigating, probably, for the last four, or five years. The white paper is a culmination of the research that we've done today around textile waste and textile recovery. It's focused on systems in the US.

The goal of the white paper is to really bring people to a common place where we can all understand the current state of textile recovery, bring the conversation all in one place. Create a baseline level of understanding, and recognition of the need for scalable system solutions for textile waste in the US. It presents today's environment around textile, waste, and recovery. Identifies what the gaps are in the systems towards creating a circular economy for textiles, and then, it posits some ideas for solutions.

[00:07:25] Liz: I think that's what's so interesting about this, not just outlining where we are right now because that's so important, and sometimes it's very hard to find the data on that. We've heard everything from a truckload of textiles goes to a landfill every two minutes to something else, I can't wait to read that.

Also, intriguing that you're focusing on what's next, what's the way forward now, can you give any little secrets on that? What you guys think is a possible way forward, maybe a system that might work for recovery?

[00:07:57] Marisa: Yes, absolutely. First of all, what's really exciting is that there's a lot of buzz around this now, I think people are finally giving attention to the problem of textile waste that is due whereas in the past maybe we have focused heavily on other areas. I think the solutions-- there are multi-fold, there are gaps along the systems in several very critical places.

The solutions that we describe are not necessarily anything new or out of the box, they're very practical solutions to how we can fill the gaps in the information, and in the infrastructure that currently exists, how we can move forward. I'll give two examples, one is that the EPA tracks how much textile waste is generated year over year, but there is no current data that tell us the fiber composition, the blend, the frequency of blends, and the volume of blends within that textile waste stream.

That's the information that we need to know in order for textile recyclers whether it's mechanical, or an advanced recycling technology to develop their facilities, build them, scale, prove their economic, and their operational feasibility models. The white paper lays out that we need to conduct waste characterization studies of the residential, and the commercial waste streams both post-industrial, pre-consumer, and post-consumer in order to create those foundational data sets that can then be used to build the rest of the system.

That's one example. The other example that I'll mention is that just like we have material recovery facilities, or MRFs for our traditional curbside recyclables, we need something similar to that for textiles. We need the sorting capability to those end-market specifications, whether it's, like I said, a mechanical recycler or a chemical recycler.

They have very specific feedstock specifications, we don't currently have the capacity in the US, or really anywhere to take curbside collected textiles in math, and sort them to different grades. The white paper proposes the concept of a textile merge, and the textile merge starts with reuse because we want to focus on the waste hierarchy.

It would sort for quality, first and foremost. After that, it could sort either by fiber type using technology like some of the equipment that exists today, for example, Fibersort technology by Valvan Baling Systems, it would create specific bail based on those end-market specifications, or it could sort in addition by other criteria, if there are RFID tags, brands have specific RFID tags. If brands want their own material back to sort by that or other emerging identification technologies.

[00:11:33] Liz: I love those ideas, that's fantastic. I really hope those happen, Marisa [laughs].

[00:11:38] Marisa: [laughs] I know, me too. The thing is it doesn't have to be a dedicated textile MRF, there are facilities like sorters or graders, who already have facilities in different geographies of the US. They either could incorporate some of these technologies, or we have charities like Goodwill, America's Thrift, and Salvation Army, who have sorting capacity now based on manual labor.

If they could expand a little bit, and include some of the Fibersort technology in there as well, we can capitalize on the infrastructure and the expertise that's already out there. We don't have to start from scratch, but it should be regional. Waste is a very local issue, if we had regional textile sorting facilities or sorting hubs that would probably be an ideal situation.

[00:12:35] Liz: Definitely. Now, are you seeing the more traditional haulers, and recyclers in the industry being interested in this?

[00:12:47] Marisa: There are some very interesting models on the collection side. One of them is a curbside recycling company called Simple Recycling, they do curbside pickup of source-separated textiles free of charge to both the municipality, and the resident. We have another company called Retriever, who has an app-based technology that allows residents to schedule door to door pickup of used clothing, they do electronics as well.

We have those kinds of models, I think there is a lot of room for traditional haulers to engage in the space. There's so much textile waste that's available for selection, recycling, and reuse instead of disposal.

Some of those technologies I just mentioned, for example, are at that light. It's either the service or scheduling technologies that they offer. They're looking to partner up with haulers, and people who have collection fleet, and collection staff available. I, definitely, do think there is opportunity in that space.

[00:14:17] Liz: Definitely. One thing that's come out of the pandemic is that consumers, of course, manufacturers too, want more transparency into their supply chains, are you seeing this as well?

[00:14:32] Marisa: Yes. Right now, on both sides, from the company, the brand, or the retailer perspective, also on the resident and the consumer perspective. There's not a whole lot of transparency into what happens when you either drop your clothing off at a local charity, thrift store, or you place it into a clothing collection bin, or you return it to the retailer in a collection container that they have.

It's hard to provide that transparency right now because it's a very complex network that the material travels through to reach their final end destinations. I think we have to be able to build a system that is transparent, offers that transparency. I think we'll get there through the combination of scalable systems, and also through the tracking technology that's evolving today whether that's RFID, blockchain, or the digital circular ID concept.

[00:15:44] Liz: That's good. I saw that you've spoken at FIT. Now, what do you think the next generation of fashion students think about fashion impact on the planet? Are they thinking about this stuff? Is the awareness there?

[00:15:58] Marisa: Yes. I think it is. At least, the students that I spoke with, and the designers that I speak to today. The training is starting to evolve on thinking about end of life, thinking about designing for recyclability, designing for durability, designing for reparability. As more and more students are learning this, going out, and entering the workforce we'll start seeing a shift, but it's also critical that the companies they go to work for are embracing it, paying attention to it, dedicating this R&D effort and time, funding to it. Otherwise, we're not going to be able to actualize that.

[00:16:50] Liz: That makes sense too. I know for this white paper you and RRS had it reviewed by a lot of different representatives in the fashion industry, and beyond. Can you talk a little bit about that process, and what they thought about this?

[00:17:06] Marisa: Yes, absolutely. We wanted to make sure that we were depicting the current state of reality accurately. Also, that the ideas and the gaps in the information that we were describing were accurate, and sound, really. We reached out to representatives from several different points along the recovery value chain to review it and weigh in.

We had reviewers from brands, and retailers, and advanced recycling technologies from some of the trade associations like the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association. That represents a lot of the sorter graders and mechanical recyclers. We had them all review it to make sure that they agreed with the description of the way we described the textile waste and recovery space as it stands today. Also, to bet our ideas against their expertise.

Talking about how do we close the gaps. So much of the devil is in the details, so, are we getting those details correct? Are we identifying the correct gaps? Is it the textile MRF actually what we need in order to-- it's like the linchpin in the system, to unlock the flow. Everyone was very helpful, pointed out areas where, "Oh, well, he didn't quite get this exactly right. Here's how you need to change it." All in all, it was a very fruitful and positive endeavor to engage with those stakeholders.

[00:19:06] Liz: I bet, and to know that you're on the right track and that you were presenting that properly. Your perspective passed forward made sense to them too, because they would be living it, right?

[00:19:21] Marisa: Right, exactly. Yes [laughs]. It was very important to us that we weren't just doing research and compiling this information just so it could be in a report and sit there. We wanted it to be actionable, we wanted it to provide helpful insights that help people make decisions in order to move things forward.

[00:19:42] Liz: That's awesome. I know that you had written in the report some statistics about just how quickly textile waste has grown compared to some in the other waste streams. Can you talk about that?

[00:19:54] Marisa: Yes, it's really astounding. If you take the US EPA Sustainable Materials Management Facts and Figures reports from 2000 through today, and you chart them and you just run the calculations, it's pretty flooring. Textile waste is, by far, the fastest-growing material category in the entire waste stream. For example, textiles increased almost 80% since 2000 just on a pure weight basis, whereas the entire overall waste stream only grew 10%.

Then, if you're looking on a per capita basis, it increased 50% per person as compared to a 5% decrease in the overall waste generation per capita. It just goes to show how quickly textile waste is growing compared to the other components of our waste stream. Just for comparison, plastics is a distant second on that. There is so much attention, programming, and funding going towards plastic which is deserving of all of that attention, but we also need to look at what's happening in textiles.

I'll also just point out, there is a really interesting nexus between plastics and textiles, because most of the majority of the fibers that go into textiles is polyester, and polyester is a plastic. It's derived from fossil fuels and, as RRS, we do a lot of work with consumer product companies and beverage companies. There's a lot of them who are saying, "Listen, we have these recycled content goals. These are PET goals. There's not enough supply right now, and the supply that we do have is funneling into our PET fiber because it's just an easier pathway for it to take".

They're coming to us saying, "How can we get either our PET back or how can we unlock new sources?" The textile industry is also saying, "We need more and more recycled polyester, recycled PET, because we need to meet our recycled content goals." Textile waste is one of the very obvious solutions. If we can keep textiles circulating within the textile industry, we can keep [unintelligible 00:22:44] PET bottles circulating within the beverage industry and have the closed-loop systems, then that would be the ideal solution.

But to do that, we need to establish the infrastructure and the processes to be able to collect textiles and mass sort them to specifications. Pre-process them for the recyclers, and then give the recyclers the security in knowing that they can rely on feedstock and invest in the infrastructure that they need to develop.

[00:23:20] Liz: It's audacious, but it's doable.

[00:23:23] Marisa: Absolutely doable. It's definitely ambitious, but it is absolutely doable and it's critical that we do it. It's going to create more resilient supply chain for the textile industry, certainly, and it has economic value. Right now we're just throwing away textiles that are literally feedstock for supply chains. I think the value proposition and the business case are there, we just need to make it abundantly clear to everybody that it is there.

[00:23:59] Liz: Absolutely. Some of the inputs why that has risen so much, is it fast fashion? What do you attribute that to?

[00:24:08] Marisa: Yes, fast fashion definitely is a contributing factor. I don't think necessarily we can point fingers and blame them for everything. I think that there aren't solutions right now to collect, and sort, and recycle textiles, so the lack of infrastructure is also another reason. Also, consumer behavior. 85% of the textiles that we generate are disposed of right now.

There's a long way we could go in each and every person's behavior to reuse or recycle those textiles instead, so I think there are several underlying reasons for it, not the least of which is fast fashion, that's definitely a factor, but I think it's more than just one thing.

[00:25:13] Liz: Definitely. I know Adam Minter in his book Secondhand, one of his bits of advice to the industry was what you were saying Marisa. Have tighter relationships with the donation centers, really tap that expertise and see where that takes us. Because he thinks that was a bit of a gold mine.

[00:25:37] Marisa: Yes, definitely. They have decades, and decades, and decades of experience collecting and sorting textiles. You talk to some of the sorter graders and they can just pick up a material and, just by feeling it, tell you the fiber composition of it with relative accuracy. They know inside and out the current pathways that exist and we need to leverage those, it has to be part of any solution moving forward. They have to be scaled, also.

There's a lot of room for growth within the existing recovery pathways. It's not just all about the chemical recycling. It has to really be preserving the embedded energy of the product first and foremost, so if it can just be reused as is, that's the pathway it should take if it can be repaired through someone like The Renewal Workshop, and that's the pathway we need to take. If it can go to a cascading use like rag, or shoddy, then we should do that because that offsets the need for virgin feedstock in the production of rags and shoddy.

Then, if it can be recycled either mechanically or chemically and back into a fiber, then that opens up a whole new world of possibilities for the industry. I think there's definitely a lot to be said for leveraging the expertise and the activities that are in existence today and scaling them to be part and parcel of a larger solution.

[00:27:24] Liz: Do you think policy plays a role?

[00:27:26] Marisa: Yes, policy always plays a role. I think when it comes to policy, the US is a very market-driven economy, but there's definitely is a role for policy. Exactly what kind of policy remains to be seen. It could be an incentive for diverting textiles or a disincentive for disposing of them. It could be a policy that supports recycling market development or it could be a policy that looks more like extended producer responsibility.

One of the important roles of policy is that it creates an even playing field. We've heard a lot from the brands and retailers and industry stakeholders that we've spoken to that role that policy can play leveling the playing field would be an important one.

The textile industry is not one that traditionally has allocated-- they don't have huge budgets for R&D -Research and Development- like some other industries may have, so it's really hard for them to invest a lot of money into testing, piloting, and scaling these recovery system ideas. But if there were a policy that helped level the playing field and you could leverage this collective investment, I think that's something that could be really helpful. That sort of collective investment is missing right now.

[00:29:21] Liz: Definitely. On another note, do you think some of the emerging chemical recycling technology has legs?

[00:29:31] Marisa: I do. There's a long way to go before we can commercialize those technologies, but I do think they hold a lot of promise. It's really one of the only ways right now that we can envision extracting value from some of those harder to recycle parts of the waste stream. Obviously, with textiles specifically, there's a really big role in unlocking access to that polyester that's ending up in landfill right now, and also the cotton.

I really do think there's a significant role that these technologies are going to play. I have confidence that they are viable and feasible. In our marketplace, there are gaps in the data right now and it's a little bit of a chicken or egg situation, they're not going to invest in building that infrastructure until they have reliable sources of supply. They also need to have those off-take agreements from the supply chain for the recycled feedstock that they're creating.

Whether that's an [unintelligible 00:30:54] pellet or a cellulosic fiber, they need both those assurances on either side of their business in order to feel comfortable moving forward. But I definitely see them as part of the solution.

[00:31:11] Liz: Right. What do you think is next for waste recycling and organic?

[00:31:15] Marisa: I think collaboration and research is next. At least in the textile space. When we're talking larger waste recycling organics, I think textiles is the next frontier. I think that people are really starting to pay attention to it and really starting to give the attention that's needed and the serious attention to move it forward.

[00:31:41] Liz: That's awesome. Good. Marisa, you've accomplished so much already in your career, what advice do you have for young professionals entering the industry like you once did?

[00:31:51] Marisa: Yes, I would say you have to have fun with it, you have to have a passion for what you're doing. You need to believe in the value of managing our waste systems appropriately, and diverting waste, and expanding options for recovery. Just learn about other things that are going on, learn where the gaps are, learn where there could be synergies and network.

[00:32:19] Liz: I think that's great advice for any industry, really, about collaboration, that you said previously too, and passion. I love all of that. It really comes through in everything that you're doing. Is there anything else you want to share before I let you go? I know you're a busy woman.

[00:32:33] Marisa: No, I think that's it. I'm looking very forward to having the white paper released and seeing what conversations it's able to support and launch. I'm looking very forward to the WasteExpo conference this year.

[00:32:53] Liz: Maybe you could tell us about your session at WasteExpo together online. How's that looking?

[00:33:00] Marisa: It's looking really great. We've got some good speakers lined up. We're going to be joined by Nicole Bassett from The Renewal Workshop, Rachel Kibby from Retriever, Hilde Van Duijn from Circle Economy, and Peter Majeranowski from Tyton BioSciences. We've got a panel that really can speak to all the different points along the recovery value chain, and we're hoping to have a very active conversation about how we can each play a role in filling the gaps that currently exist and moving the system forward.

[00:33:43] Liz: I can't wait for that, it's going to be great. What a blockbuster panel you put together. Thank you for that, we look forward to seeing it.

[00:33:51] Marisa: Great, thank you.

[00:33:52] Liz: Where can people download the white paper and learn more about your work? If you want to share the URL for RRS, or a twitter handle, or anything like that.

[00:34:01] Marisa: Yes. You can go to recycle.com and the paper will be available for download on the RRS website.

[00:34:09] Liz: Awesome. Marisa, this has been so great catching up with you, seeing how you're doing and the great work that you're doing. Everyone download the white paper, you're going to be pleasantly surprised of all the details and information that went into this. Amazing work, Marisa, you and your team. Thank you so much.

[00:34:29] Marisa: Thank you, Liz. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk about textiles with me today.

[00:34:35] Liz: It's been great. We will catch up with you soon, I'm sure. Look forward to seeing you at WasteExpo together online.

[00:34:41] Marisa: Great, so do I.

[00:34:42] Liz: All right. Thanks, Marisa. Talk to you soon.

[00:34:44] Marisa: Thanks. Bye.

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