Tulin Dzhengiz

What have I learnt from Turkey’s textile recycling ecosystem?

Text and pictures: Tulin Dzhengiz 

About 6 months ago, I started fieldwork to explore the Turkish textile recycling ecosystem. In this scope, I have interviewed more than 50 professionals, mostly incumbent players of this ecosystem, NGO leaders, consultants, academics and many other players. In many ways, this research was eye-opening. So, in this Medium article, I want to reflect on how my awareness was shaped by this research.

Prefer listening? Here’s a podcast about the same theme.

Circular economy awareness in emerging country contexts

I want to start by underlining that in the western world, especially in Europe, people hear more and more about ‘circular economy’. If you join any industry event, you will see that global white goods producers, furniture makers, fast fashion giants, automotive players, they all talk about how they are re-designing their business models based on the principles of the circular economy. As a researcher who also studies these kinds of trends and topics in the western world, naturally, you become biased in time and start assuming that the shift towards the circular economy is affecting everyone in the world in the same way. This assumption, however, is very misleading. Strangely, I have realised that in Turkey, some actors who were actively contributing towards ‘circular economy’ did not necessarily know the term nor were they interested in it that much. When I spoke with many SME managers and owners who pioneered textile recycling in a region, they were not trying to greenwash me with the term ‘circular’ at all… On the contrary, one of them even said: “…whatever you write from this research, don’t make us sound like angels. We are only doing this because of the profits”. I realised that in order to really understand the context, I had to drop many of the assumptions that I carried with me to the fieldwork. Circular economy awareness is only one of them. Innovation, R&D investments, industry-academia collaborations, strategic alliances… Having researched these kinds of topics, I expected these to be a part of the daily lives of many textile recyclers. This was also not the case there unfortunately for many of the players I had interviewed. So, again, I realised the necessity of focusing on what the field can tell me which would not necessarily confirm my beliefs but on the contrary, reveal the authentic experiences and stories of recyclers. In what follows, after dropping my own misleading assumptions and biases, I shall focus on these honest reflections.

  • 80s: I beg you, please take my waste

This ecosystem is rooted in the long history of Turkey’s carpet and rug making which was followed by blanket making. It is fair to say that the textile recycling activities start when a couple of very interesting entrepreneurs become aware of the pre-consumer textile waste opportunity. This was an opportunity because at the time, in the 80s, they told me that they did not even have to pay for the pre-consumer waste that they were using. They highlight how workshops had to incinerate and pay money to get this waste removed from their backyards. Thus, them going to these workshops to collect it for free was a great deal at the time. This is how many businesses started to realise this is a profitable business model. They could buy cheaper second-hand mechanical recycling machines and their most important raw material was almost free.

  • 90s and 00s: Copy-paste model of growth

The ecosystem, actually an industrial cluster, grew pretty soon after in the 90s and 2000s. The players describe this growth as a copy-paste approach. I heard so many actors use exactly this term, so I am being loyal to their terminology. What they mean is that families, cousins, brothers, close friends, after observing the profitability (with some bittersweet jealousy too) of these businesses, also enter into this market. Therefore, as you walk past, you may see people with the same surname but working for different organisations, in most cases, even competing against each other. From a few players in the 80s, today, more than 100 players exist in the same city, doing a similar kind of work: recycling pre-consumer waste textiles. Today, tons of waste enter into this one city and tons of recycled fibre get out of this city every day. Recyclers say: “if we didn’t do this work, the streets of Istanbul would be flooded with waste textiles”. Istanbul is the headquarters of their raw material source, it is where most textile workshops are and where the main waste collection centres have emerged…

  • Competition versus cooperation

It would not be fair to say that these actors do not cooperate. However, as they also mention frequently, there is jealousy between these competing SMEs. One informant tells me: “others wouldn’t want us to make more money than them, so you would not find much collaboration here”. There is collaboration when they need supplies, of course, but generally to a limited degree. These relationships are reinforced with positive family-friend relationships and informal ties. Often, different actors approach each others’ statements with caution, they suspect others may lie to them… After all, they are competitors.

This highly competitive environment definitely erodes the real potential of the ecosystem, though. There are stories of meetings where some members of the ecosystem did not hold their promises in price-setting negotiations and thus, the bond that could have been there, is definitely not there anymore. It means that the ecosystem cannot benefit from a common warehouse, common testing centre, common R&D centre etc… Because they cannot get together and trust each other. Trust is key. But, when informal relationships are common and formal relationships are viewed as an additional formality, if people have already lost their trust in each other, how to build it back again…

  • Paradoxes of Circularity: Polyester & Growth of Demand

Recycling work is full of paradoxes. Here, I decided to call them paradoxes of circularity. The most important one is to do with polyester use. When cotton is recycled using mechanical recycling, the fibre length gets shorter. In order to enhance the fibre length, this ecosystem commonly uses either virgin or recycled polyester. This is a fact and a reality that we have to accept at this point. These recyclers are not using the most innovative technologies that are recently emerging in Europe and other parts of the western world where it is possible to recycle without polyester. Mostly, they are not even aware of such recent innovations. This is a shame and this is exactly why they urgently and desperately need more university-academia collaborations, and R&D centres and investments from companies who, in the end, use their fibres. But, for this to happen, the culture of cooperation needs to replace the hyper-competitive, jealous and untrusting vibe around.

When I ask them what implications this polyester use has on the fabric, they say many things. For one, they are aware that polyester makes the fabric unhealthy for the consumer. Here, some mention how wearing polyester is bad for our blood & sweat circulation and this is why no recycled cotton fibre can ever replace the original cotton. I feel that they have a sense of shame regarding their own products. Some say this is “fibre made out of rubbish”. Some say: “they would choose not to buy their own fibres and go for original cotton”. Others say: “this is not the highest quality and nor can it ever be or replace original cotton”… Even if they cannot label it themselves, I sense that using polyester is the source of this shame. Still, they are unaware of many recent chemical and mechanical recycling methods where polyester use is not necessary. They are also sceptical about these. One says: “I see these kinds of new high tech. stuff in fairs when I go. They cannot break even, they cannot scale and they cannot compete with us and our prices”.

They are aware that polyester also pollutes the natural environment. Those that use recycled polyester, however, are not as negative as they say they are also using content that would have polluted the streets otherwise. There is some truth in their arguments and I can understand where they come from.

The most interesting thing about polyester use is when we conceptualise the cycle of the circular economy. They say, recently, the fabrics made out of their recycled fibres started to come back to them, for them to recycle. These fabrics already have polyester content. Another round of recycling means another round of adding polyester. So, every time their own products come back to them as raw materials, “semi-closing the loop”, the environmentally friendliness of this whole recycling process reduces. They consider this as a future threat and a challenge. An irritation for them. Yet, they are SMEs who do a similar kind of work every day with little resources to invest in R&D to kill this irritation and frustration.

Another interesting issue is how they perceive the growth of their industry and ecosystem. I remember one informant telling me: “I wish there was more original production, and pre-consumer textile waste, so we could produce more”. I told him: “ But, there being more production means that fast fashion grows and people would consume more and more.” He said: “he never thought of it that way”. I realise that they perceive pre-consumer waste as their raw material. As such, they call it ‘raw material’. However, their raw material is the waste from the clothes that are produced every day. So, they are completely tied to the fast fashion business model. In their mind, however, recycling work is de-coupled from this fast-fashion world, even though the growth of their ecosystem also corresponds with the growth of fast fashion across the world. Most proponents of circular fashion do not like to admit this. But upcycling and downcycling are also tied to the fast fashion business model in a way, especially if your raw material pre-consumer waste is dependent on Zara or H&M selling more and producing more…

This growth hunger is very much present in the recyclers. One of them tells me: “ I don’t know why we can’t feed this hungry monster. We have all made good amounts of money from this business. But, look around you. Everyone is going to be buying more machines, buying more land and investing in the business more to grow it more”. He is a critical soul and I definitely understand his sentiment.

  • Standards and Certifications: Clarity vs. Chaos

Over time, like many other industries, standards and certifications have emerged that apply to the textile recycling industry too. Frequently, when I ask them how they perceive their relationships with fast fashion companies like Zara or H&M, they talk about these standards and certifications. Standards of Textile Exchange including Global Recycled Standard and Recycled Claim Standard are common. Recently, they are also feeling the pressure of getting other certifications which they refer to as the social compliance certifications. Here, for instance, Inditex’s Social Compliance procedures are often mentioned. Some recyclers have a sense of pride in being able to receive these certifications with ease. Other recyclers spot the problems and underline these, which I also want to mention here.

For one, they suggest that if we want recycling to happen properly and at a decent quality, we need a specific standard for recycled textile products and fibres. Unfortunately, some complain that when they get some of the above-listed certifications, as opposed to checking the recycling work and the quality of it, they have to show “where their toilets are”. This social compliance dimension of certifications really puts some down. One of them even said to me: “ It is not the responsibility of those giant companies to check how I am treating my employees. It is the responsibility of my government”. Opinions vary on that, though. Some are very happy about the social compliance dimension and hope that these initiatives would help reduce child labour or immigrant labour and achieve fair pay to all employees in this industry. Still, the lack of a system or a standard about the quality of recycled fibre is a nuisance to almost all of them. They wish someday that they can create their own standard or label. But, again, this too, requires collaboration amongst them.

It should also not be forgotten that most of these companies are small players with a few medium-sized organisations. One of them tells me how, in order to apply for something bureaucratic, he had to hire someone specifically only for that job — to follow up the bureaucratic process. These are costly for endeavours for them and thus, not so preferable.

I also spoke with a representative from an auditing company who provides these certifications to these companies. He sadly says while he understands the concerns of the recyclers, he cannot do anything because the standards are set by Textile Exchange or another organisation, not by his organisation…Here is another disconnect. Many middlemen in the auditing and certification process and those who do the work are in isolation and removed from those who impose the certifications.

The other issue is the lack of a value chain dimension of these standards. The waste, when gets recycled again, travels across the whole value chain. But, only recyclers and those who use recycled content can access the certifications. There are, however, other members of this complex global value chain. Like those who collect, store and transport textile waste. These members are currently excluded from the certification system. One such actor tells me he has spoken with the auditing companies and providers and they do not certify him. But, doing a neat job, carefully and abiding by the rules and legislation (not allowing informal economy), he thinks he too should be eligible for certification and adds that without the whole value chain being certified, the problems of the industry cannot be addressed.

  • Global Value Chain: Invisible Actors that Recycle Your Tshirt

Many players that I talk to highlight how they are even recycling the waste coming from Latin America, Europe and the US. It is true because the pre-consumer textile waste travels. I will come to this later. Some say: “ Write this in your notes. We are cleaning up their rubbish”. Some show me the adverts of global fast fashion players like H&M proudly presenting their recycled content. They say that recycled content comes from some companies from the region. I feel their sense of isolation when they talk about players like H&M.

It is almost as though these fashion giants that claim they will use more recycled content are doing the recycling themselves when you watch the advertisement. However, in many cases, the recycled fibres travel from places like I have visited. These players turn these cut pieces of fabric back into fibre again and that fibre goes into many products you may wear or use. It may be in your T-shirt, very likely to be in your socks, inside your blanket, underneath your sofa, behind your car…. But, as a consumer, you would not even know these materials have recycled content.

These recycling companies, in fact, are very far removed from the fashion giants or sometimes even their suppliers…. Here is the value chain. Let’s say that H&M orders some T-shirts. H&M suppliers get these sawn in workshops that produce for them, most likely very little contractors. Often, this is where the pre-consumer waste occurs.

This pre-consumer waste gets collected and stored. It needs to be sorted based on fabric and colour. This is extremely difficult work. The collection, storage and sorting, these stages are mostly manual and require cheap labour. There are also many issues here. Collectors like students, immigrants and other low-income groups collect and sell the waste to bigger collection/storage spots without there being any tax payments or proof of exchange, thus all a part of the informal economy. An important social problem that I will mention later.

After this, the waste travels to the recycling ecosystem. Some recyclers say, only during this travel, the truck changes drivers three times… Every time the driver changes, the price of the content inside of the truck increases. Imagine the chaos… Thus, the difficulty of supply. I ask them, how can this be. They say it is not like the 80s anymore. Waste is very valuable, and they have little or no control over the price and there are many actors trying to get their own ‘share’ of this recycling pie, even though they are not even actually doing any recycling work. Then, this waste fabric arrives at these recyclers. They recycle it. Either they turn it into cotton again or they turn it into recycled fibre, an open-end spinning process. Then, again, the journey of this recycled fibre starts.

Recycled fibre goes into fabric-yarn makers either within the country or abroad. It goes to local blanket or carpet makers. It travels to all sorts of textile producers.

From these producers, it goes to the workshops again. To be cut and sawn and become products that we are familiar with. And, here our loop closes. But, at these workshops, waste occurs again and this waste travels back to our recyclers again.

The global players and we, as consumers, are at the end of the chain. Even when we try to ‘semi-close’ the loop, the recyclers are still so far removed. Their views or concerns are often heard by many middlemen. But, for instance, someone who works in the Supply Chain departments of H&M would not know these recyclers directly and would not be able to understand their perspective easily. I would not be able to understand their perspectives if I had not been there and seen it all myself.

  • To Import or Not to Import: Travelling Waste

Another very important area to discuss, and a rather controversial one too, is the issue of importing waste. Unlike other sorts of waste, pre-consumer textile waste is actually something clean if it is not polluted after the cut pieces are put together. Think about it. If they hadn’t cut this piece of fabric, it would be on you and you would be happy wearing it.

However, the boundaries between what is polluted and harmful waste and what is not, may not be so clear. In addition, unfortunately, many governments do not know how to deal with this kind of waste through legislation. So, we have a grey area.

I am told that some entrepreneurs discovered how lots of pre-consumer textile waste occurs in other parts of the world. These entrepreneurs developed connections with distant parts of the world like Latin America, to bring their pre-consumer textile waste into this cluster so that it could be recycled here. So, thanks to these connections, the growth-hungry cluster found yet another source of waste to chew: imported waste. They have been transforming this waste for a while. But, recently, there have been some disruptions in textile waste imports.

About a year ago, the Guardian and many other news sources including the local Turkish news shared a story about Turkey’s waste imports. These waste imports in the story were not pre-consumer textile waste. It was plastic waste. According to the story and reports, some plastic recyclers imported waste claiming that they would recycle it. But, first, the waste was not recyclable. Second, it was dumped in areas where it affected local communities, poisoned their animals and affected their water sources. Third, NGOs like Greenpeace found that this waste came from countries like the UK and travelled all the way to Turkey only to be dumped… This horrible story affected not only the plastic recycling industry, however. It affected all recyclers, and how they are perceived.

In response to this news and long negotiations with the recycling industry lobbyists, the waste import-related legislation changed at least twice in Turkey in the last year. For some period, it was not possible to import pre-consumer textile waste, recyclers say. Many recyclers highlighted that not having the imported waste in the market available, together with the covid crisis and the reduction in fabric/yarn/clothing production, and the general increase in demand for recycled fibre, skyrocketed the prices of pre-consumer textile waste. Not only the price, but they also feel that their supply of textile waste is not secure or stable and will be affected in the future by such scandals and legislations that follow.

Some say to me “I am angrier more than anyone else about these illegal recyclers who import but don’t recycle and dump.” Others say: “because of such illicit, unregistered or unethical actors in recycling, people’s and government’s perception of recyclers get affected”. In other words, “apples and oranges are put in the same category and face the same consequences”. These recyclers clearly resent this treatment…

  • The Role of State in Recycling and Circular Economy Ecosystems

Like I mentioned above, in imports and exports of textile waste, the state plays a crucial role by determining what the rules and regulations will be, what kind of waste can enter the country, what is the tolerable amount of pollutants in that waste etc… However, this is not the only role of the state in the vast recycling economy.

In Europe, many cities and local authorities, as well as national governments are putting in place new plans for a circular economy and continue negotiating with industries to encourage them. In Turkey, the most famous circular economy programme is led by the wife of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a famous programme called “Zero Waste”. Many recyclers and people in the street are content about the existence of this programme. However, there are also a few issues with this. Firstly, when I was having my interviews, industrial recycling was kept outside the scope of this Zero Waste project. Hence, the textile recyclers wished that they were also considered crucial actors within this programme. Secondly, the programme acts as an awareness-raising programme and classifying the waste, legalising and sorting the tax issues of the textile waste value chain is far from being on the agenda of this programme. Overall, it comes down to some strong members of the cluster who are also rather political to negotiate and lobby on behalf of the textile recycling ecosystem. But, a state-wide recognition of the work of this ecosystem, classification of their work, sorting many value chain issues that are also affecting the state (tax lost due to informal economy) are missing from the programme as well as the general scenery.

Unfortunately, the country is in economic turmoil and of course, national priorities are also shaped by these realities. Currently, the transition towards the circular economy does not appear to be a priority, if you ask me. Thankfully, there are many non-profit organisations like DCube and Türkiye Döngüsel Ekonomi Platformu that are trying very hard to fill the void and encourage industries to move towards a circular economy.

  • Social Dimension of Recycling and Circular Economy: The Role of Transparency and Traceability

I mentioned the informal economy, exploitation of cheap labour of migrant workers and marginalised low-income groups in the waste collection stage. I have not personally interviewed these members. I have also not interviewed the people who might employ them. But, I heard these social issues a lot from different people. My informants told me how they know sometimes it is university students who need the extra income that go and collect some waste and in other cases, it is the Syrian or Afghan refugees or members of the local Roma communities. Unfortunately, they do this collection outside the formal economy. Thus, there is the issue of taxation. The taxation issue affects the recyclers because they may receive untaxed input but they have to pay taxes for their output. In some cases, the differences, on paper, between their inputs and outputs can be ridiculously high due to the waste that they receive without taxes. There are providers of textile waste who follow very strict guidelines and do not allow informal economy in their waste collection. Perhaps those are the ones that complain the most about this situation. Because, by not getting involved in the informal economy, their prices may become higher in comparison to other providers.

Overall, the end consumer may think they are buying a more environmentally friendly product by buying a T-shirt with recycled content. But, the waste that goes into the fibre of that T-shirt may come from the collection efforts of the cheapest labour available. These issues are not so different in the cotton supply chain, of course. But, the circular economy is a hot topic now and we are all at the design stage of circular value chains. Therefore, it is even more important that we do not carry the problems associated with traditional value chains to the new circular value chains we are trying to design. Yet, a surprise, these problems are already there…

For this, I ask the recyclers what they think about the “transparency or traceability” of their value chains. Some, sadly, laugh at me when I ask this question. In fact, I must admit that this was one of the questions that made me feel like a little innocent child around them. They think it is very hard to completely track and trace the recycling value chain, because the content may come from anywhere. This work is a mix of colour and fabric matching and often all waste gets compiled and sorted based on that using manual labour. I ask whether they see some new technologies like blockchain changing this. They are not hopeful nor so aware of how such technologies can affect their value chains.

Another social issue that they see as a threat is future employment. We often discuss circular employment as something that will require digitised work whereby qualified labour will be necessary. Unfortunately, the reality of textile recycling is far from that in Turkey. Textile recycling requires manual and cheap labour in this ecosystem. Here, women do the sorting based on colour and they are often primary or high school graduates. They do not need so much formal education to do this for a living, but rather the experience and strong tireless eyes to help them distinguish between the different colour tones.

When you speak to SME owners, they say the hardest thing is to find new employment. I ask what type of employment. Some say technicians and others say manual cheap labour. Regardless of the debate about the quality of education in Turkey of which the recyclers do discuss and complain about, the general pattern is the unwillingness of the younger generations to participate in the manual recycling work. Some engineers working in the industry admit that even their work can be not so much of the work of a textile engineer but that of a technician sometimes. To work in this industry, it is necessary to get used to that. I believe this is also the case because the R&D investments and innovations are hugely lacking.

Still, as societies get more educated, what will happen to such manual recycling labour? We need more things to be recycled. But, if we are not willing to work in this industry due to our advanced educations, then who will do the job? In a futuristic sense, some of you may say: Robots. Well, we are not there yet. And, it will still take some time to get there. Meanwhile, how should we organise such work in such a way where employment is meaningful? I find this to be an important question. Otherwise, the answer is not likely to be robots, but likely to be Syrian and Afghan refugees. Especially, considering the refugee crisis that Turkey has found itself in, within the last decade.

  • Circular economy =/ Recycling

Many recyclers are generally not aware that recycling is perhaps not even the most preferred stage of the circular economy. This ecosystem was extremely appropriate to try upcycling, repurposing textile waste in different ways or even reusing waste in novel ways. However, these ideas have not even crossed the minds of the members of this ecosystem. They see such works as outside their scope, even though it can be closely related to what they do and can do. I definitely see the raw material availability, labour and network already existing for these other circular business models to be trialled.

Circular textiles, in my view, should start with the contemplation of how we can generally produce and pollute less. Then, how we can re-use or repair what already exists. Finally, if we cannot do these, then we can try upcycling or downcycling.

These kinds of recycling ecosystems are also perfect places to start new business models of the circular economy. But, strangely, I realised, in Turkey, such new models were not happening close to this ecosystem but far away in the bigger cities where raw material is not available or harder to get and so is the labour. Yet another disconnect…

Similarly, post-consumer textile waste was being collected by the municipalities, some charitable organisations and non-profits. But due to the difficulties of recycling these, often these were used as contributions to those who cannot afford to buy clothing. However, actors who can use these pieces of clothing for upcycling or repurposing were missing from the picture.

  • What needs to be done to address the problems of textile recycling in ecosystems like Turkey’s cluster?

Overall, I found the history, stories and struggles of Turkish textile recyclers worth sharing. I have yet to develop academic articles from this research. But, I also find it very important to share the raw observations in a very simple, easy to follow non-academic language. The final question to a piece of essay like this would be: “so, what can we or these recyclers do to solve many of these problems you highlight?”

1- Forming a collective and representative entity

A circular ecosystem requires deeper cooperation. Currently, the tensions between cooperation and competition have no balance, heavily leaned towards hyper-competition. While helpful for taking the prices of the recycled fibre further down and making them competitive in their cheap offerings, I must say it does not help them much otherwise. They need a common sorting warehouse, a testing centre to look at the content ratio of the cotton-polyester mix, an R&D centre to develop innovations together, a standard-setting institution that can help them identify the quality standards of recycled fibre, a common training centre and a common marketing and branding centre that can help these recyclers align themselves with the circular economy. To do that, they need to start cooperating with each other and build trust in the community again.

2- Cross-sector, cross-regional, cross-boundary collaborations

A circular ecosystem also needs cooperation with actors outside the ecosystem. These players are disconnected from entrepreneurs in Turkey who may help them develop better quality products or new offerings. They are disconnected from innovative European recyclers who can help them find ways to recycle without using polyester or find materials that can substitute polyester. They are disconnected from the Exporters Associations and users of their product who can also build meaningful relationships with them. They need to connect and build collaborations.

3- Research and Development

They need, desperately, to work on a number of innovations. One is the polyester issue. The other is the manual sorting and the content related identification difficulties of textile waste. Yet, another is improving the quality and fibre length. And, yet another is to be able to recycle those currently non-recyclable content like elastane. Who are they going to do this kind of research with? Local universities in the country as well as universities abroad. But, they cannot afford to fund such research alone. They need each other for this too.

4- Not just recycling but circularity

They need to expand their thinking from recycling to circularity and get familiarised with this new term that will define the future of their work.

5- Identity

They refer to themselves as rubbish cleaners, waste dealers, waste recyclers. We need a new identity for recyclers though. An identity that matches the importance of the work they do for our societies. They need to develop this new identity, also together.

6- Value of Waste

The price of textile waste, according to them, has skyrocketed and is extremely fragile. It is important to set these prices fairly, requiring negotiations between workshops and brands, collectors and storage companies and the recyclers.

Beyond price, we all need to consider, what is the value of textile waste to us?

7- From Informal to Formal Economy

The transition from informal to formal economy is a rather complex one. But, it ensures taxation and reduces the likeliness of labour exploitation, at least to some degree. How can we enable such a transition in the recycling economy? Because, if we cannot, then, fundamentally we allow this important economy to gradually move towards the arms of various illegal groups…

These are only some suggestions…I hope this was an interesting read to those in the industry and those interested in the circular economy. Hopefully, the words of my informants have not been lost in translation…