Sustainability as a common thread

"For us, more sustainable products have to be at least as competitive as conventionally produced ones.“

Article by Marius Hoff (Haniel) -

Less waste, more recycling and a new product design that supports circularity: At BekaertDeslee, Peter Hostyn and Ruben Demets tackle products that are traditionally suited to the linear economy. Their goal is to make the fabrics and covers produced at the Haniel portfolio company more sustainable and recyclable. This will not only strengthen its market position, but also reduce the textiles' environmental impact.

The path to less textile waste
35 million mattresses are incinerated or end up in landfill every year – in Europe alone. An immense challenge for legislators and companies alike, but above all an opportunity to lead the way with innovative processes. Haniel's portfolio company BekaertDeslee, a globally leading specialist for the development and manufacturing of mattress textiles and ready-made mattress covers, feels the same way. With a well-defined sustainability roadmap, the company has launched a series of measures to reduce the negative environmental impact of textiles. An important part of the solution is to reduce post-production waste and at the same time increasingly return it to the company's own recycling processes.

Going forward, BekaertDeslee wants to significantly increase the proportion of renewable materials used in its products. In 2022, it amounted to 18%. The aim is also to use more recycled materials, which still accounted for 5.8% in 2022. A first step in this direction is the use of recycled polyester – as more than 80% of the materials used to date are conventional PET. The Belgium-based company can obtain recycled polyester from its own production waste from cutting and sewing operations and process it into a high-quality yarn. At present, this still requires additional polyester from admixed PET bottles or virgin PET. In the long term, however, the amount of these PET sources is to be reduced in order to gradually increase the use of textile-to-textile recycled polyester. The environmental benefits are obvious: firstly, BekaertDeslee makes a contribution to the circular economy in the textile industry. Secondly, it reduces carbon emissions, which leads to a lower CO2 footprint. And thirdly, the recycled polyester yarns ensure that not even more waste ends up in landfill or is incinerated – a fate shared by 85% of all textiles every year.

Legislation calls for new ideas

To counteract the high environmental impact of the textile industry, the European Commission recently presented a strategy for sustainable and recyclable textiles. The overarching goal by 2030 is for all textile products placed on the market in the EU to be durable, repairable, and recyclable. This puts further pressure on both member states and companies to act. In view of dwindling resources and increased sustainability awareness among consumers, recycling is also increasingly becoming an economic factor. Being able to draw on your own sources for recycled textiles, for example, promises to be a major advantage. With entrepreneurial foresight and ecological responsibility, BekaertDeslee is therefore already working intensively on the recycling of textile waste.

In demand: a cost-effective and high-quality recycling process

Textile recycling is however still in its infancy. For many years, hardly any recycling has taken place in this field, fabrics have to be carefully sorted or separated and are often not pure enough to stand up to plastics made from primary resources. Strictly speaking, the search for technologies that are effective in practice has therefore only just begun. Part of it are Head of R&D Functional Technologies, Peter Hostyn, and Recycling Manager Ruben Demets. They want to find the best way to feed textile waste into production.

"Thermomechanical recycling is currently the most promising for pure post-production polyester waste fractions," says Ruben Demets. In this process, waste materials are first mechanically shredded, then melted and processed into new products. Compared to the use of virgin PET, BekaertDeslee can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by around 50% in the production of new yarns. "Another interesting option for us is chemical recycling," says Peter Hostyn. "This technology is still at an early stage, but a lot of research and development is currently being carried out." The special feature: plastic polymer chains can be broken down into their basic building blocks and can in turn be used to produce new plastics. Compared to the thermomechanical process, this recycling method places lower demands on the quality of the source material. In addition, far more recycling cycles are possible without deteriorating the quality of the recycled PET. But apart from the difficulty of finding the right technology, there is another challenge: economic efficiency. "For us, more sustainable products have to be at least as competitive as conventionally produced ones,“ Hostyn emphasizes.

QR/RFID labels to increase transparency

It is not only modern and innovative recycling processes that can help use textiles more sustainably. There also needs to be better interaction between product design, manufacturing, consumers and waste management companies – especially when it comes to mattresses. To achieve this, BekaertDeslee goes beyond its own production processes and is committed to the Transparent Circularity initiative. After all, to be truly recyclable, a mattress must be designed to be broken down into its individual parts at the end of its life. A QR or RFID label can also help with this, explains Ruben Demets. "The label works like a digital product ID and contains information about which materials and chemicals were used in the production process. This allows the components of the mattress to be recycled as efficiently as possible at the end of its life cycle." That is why the EU will also make digital product passports mandatory for mattresses by 2027. BekaertDeslee already has a solution for QR/RFID labeling; inviting its customers to participate and cooperate towards transparent circularity.

No longer a "nice to have", but an economic advantage

The declared goal of a circular textile economy cannot be achieved overnight. But there are just as many levers as there are promising technologies that are already found in market-ready products. Public initiatives have prompted the industry to rethink, especially in Europe. However, the biggest driver is likely to be the entrepreneurial insight that recycling is more than just fulfilling the law or a "nice to have."