Textile Recycling in India to Achieve Zero Waste

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India is a spiritual country with a diversity of cultures, geography and religions. Indians have been practicing various recycling-based activities for a long time as one of the Jain philosophies emphasise aparigraha meaning “do not store, and buy as per the need”. Recycling textiles was a domestic craft in India and was done at both industrial and household levels. A lot of ancient art and crafts are based on recycling. According to Norris, 2010, clothing has a vital social and cultural significance in India. It is hardly discarded. Apparels and textiles can be recycled in a number of ways for both the domestic and global markets.


Textile Recycling Practices at Household Level

Many recycling activities can be seen in the daily lives of many Indians, lasting for a long time and generally considered a low standard and substitute to overcome financial crises. Some of the standard and long-standing practices are the use of old clothes for a new-born child. These fabrics are comparatively soft, free from surface finishes, readily available and low in cost. Soft cotton clothes and sarees are also excellent substitutes for sanitary napkins. These are often considered cheaper and more hygienic, if used correctly. Most households use old clothes for dusting and moping. The fabric scraps are also used as fillers for soft toys, pillows and mattresses. Converting old silk sarees to cushion covers and other household activities is common. Precious traditional textiles are often passed on to the next generations as a memento and heirlooms in India and several other parts of the world. There is a cult of designers and NGO who rejuvenate precious old sarees into new value-added products with a new look.

Textile Recycling Practices in Crafts Sector

Apart from various household activities, some recycling-based crafts probably emerged either to show creative expression or as a good and cheap substitute for raw materials. These recycling-based crafts are mainly female-dominated activities. Over the years, a number of these crafts have become sources of income and livelihood. The kantha work of Bengal is often considered one of the oldest recycling practices associated with textiles in the craft sector. In this craft, excellent use of old muslin sarees is done as the base material to engrave beautiful running stitch hand embroidery. The nomadic tribes of Bakkarwal and Gujjar from Jammu and Kashmir and Rajasthan, respectively, use various recycling-based textile craft, which is a part of their tradition and culture and to preserve the old textiles. Tribes belonging to Jammu and Kashmir convert the old woollen felt blankets into handmade rugs using handmade needlework embroidery using acrylic yarns.


Similarly, tribes belonging to Rajasthan do patchwork, embroidery and mirror work to enhance the beauty of their textile products. Several accessories like caps, bags, wall hangings, mojaris (footwear), cushions etc are also made from recycled fabrics. Durry weaving on pit looms is done in the rural areas of Haryana to create Chindi Durries. In this technique, old sarees, shawls, dupattas and other old textiles generate the raw material for the rough weaving.


The awareness of sustainability and the necessity to save the environment has led researchers and scientists to emphasise the need to implement recycling practices at an industrial level. Companies partner with engineers, researchers, and industry leaders to determine value-added products. They use old textiles and apparel, as the textile waste is nearly100 per cent recyclable, and nothing has to be discarded. Some examples are as follows:


1. Panipat, also known as the global textile recycling capital, is perhaps one of India’s most influential, successful and comparatively oldest industrial textile recycling hub. The industry here recycles approximately 1,44,000 tonnes of second-hand clothing (SHC) discarded by many developed nations yearly. A bulk amount of textile wastes, especially SHC, is used as raw material to create low-quality products like blankets, shawls, carpets etc.


2. Many carpet manufacturers, fibre and chemical suppliers, recycling companies, and academic institutions actively pursue various methods to recycle fibrous waste. The approaches include both chemical and mechanical processes (Wang. et al., 2003)


Even though Zero Waste Design is not yet well implemented in the fashion industry, a small but growing community of active designers and academics exists. Of course, they all have their design approach, but still, they keep in mind that fabric is a unique resource and should not be wasted for any style options.


Following designers have taken great initiatives as a part of their businesses or innovations to work on this concept of Zero Waste Fashion-


Patch over Patch is a sustainable fashion brand based out of Surat that uses post-production waste to create upcycled clothing for women through different patchwork techniques.


Raas-Leela is a Gujarat-based label that works with an all-women artisans’ team and uses kora cotton to create breathable, comfortable and timeless clothing. This label aims to create a capsule wardrobe explicitly targeted at Indian wear. Celebrating irregularities and imperfections, their 100 per cent handstitched products use the remnants from their atelier to the leftovers from stores and manufacturing units to leave no waste behind.


Pomegranade is a Bengaluru-based ethical fashion brand that focuses on creating garments for all body types. And it shows as well. Their website shows women and men wearing their clothes and accessories on the streets. Their line of upcycled kimonos is made by patching together surplus fabric from Ants Crafts – a public charitable trust. 


Although it has only recently started reappearing in fashion, zero-waste and its philosophy date back to when traditional garments began to be made in Asia, with Japanese kimonos and Indian sarees produced using one entire bolt of fabric. This practice generated no waste. Traditionally in the Indian culture, all textiles were perceived as valuable materials. This essentially meant that textiles should not be wasted. The scale was much lower in the production of raw materials, and many textile production processes were completed manually, contributing to textiles being used to their optimum. Then came the turning point: the industrial revolution. The focus shifted from high-quality raw materials and handicrafts to fast production and artificial fibres that are affordably available within short periods. Designers quite literally started cutting corners. The valuable resources are now sacrificed and not used to their full extent, resulting in an increasingly inefficient and unsustainable industry. By rediscovering the value of material resources and adopting zero-waste in making designs, one can make a big difference. It is a great way to decrease environmental footprint, challenges creative skills of designers, and adds to the innovativeness of brands. So, the awareness of concepts related to sustainable design thinking is important. From a fashion designer’s perspective, several practices can be adopted during the design phase to become a more sustainability conscious designer. Upcycling is a widely used method of sustainable design. But implementing zero waste pattern making while preparing textile-garments products may reduce the amount of waste.

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