Can a circular economy really be established for polyester textiles in Europe?

A new study has examined what could happen if circular economy approaches to polyester textiles are combined in Europe, and claims that the fibre’s impact could be significantly reduced, including a 50% reduction in GHG emissions by 2040 compared with a continuation of historical trends. However, the outlook depends to a large extent on the success of regulatory initiatives such as the new rules under which fashion brands will, for the first time, be obliged to cover the costs of managing their textile waste.
November 30, 2023

“What might a PET/polyester system look like, if it could combine all circular economy approaches including demand reduction, reuse, mechanical recycling and chemical recycling? And what will it take to get there?”

Systemiq, which develops systems designed to boost sustainability in a variety of sectors, has published a new study which seeks to answer this question.1  

The company claims that its report provides the first system-level analysis of how different circular economy solutions for PET and polyester could fit together to limit demand, achieve high levels of reuse and recycling, and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Systemiq recommends six priority actions which it says could, by 2040, deliver a one-third reduction in overall PET/polyester consumption; a 70% decrease in waste to landfill or incineration; and a 50% reduction in GHG emissions compared with a continuation of historical trends.

The approach – defined in an ‘Ambitious Complementarity Scenario’ – brings together existing aims underway in the industry in Europe and lists three ‘upstream’ actions to slow the growth in demand for PET/polyester through business model changes, and design products for circularity:

·        Expand reuse to extend product lifetimes for packaging and textiles

·        Reverse trends of high-consumption business models in the fashion sector

·        Standardise product design to improve reuse and recycling economics.

In addition, there are three ‘downstream’ actions to put in place the complementary mechanical recycling and chemical PET recycling systems needed to deliver significant increases in recycling rates and availability of recycled PET/polyester suitable for new packaging and textiles:

·        Secure long-term demand for recycled PET/polyester

·        Develop sufficient high-quality feedstock flows for recyclers by improving collection and sorting

·        Scale up recycling infrastructure and optimise performance.

Systemiq concludes that if implemented effectively, these actions would collectively “transform the PET/polyester system.” However, the company acknowledges that such a shift depends to a large extent on the success of industry and regulatory initiatives being introduced.

The Ambitious Complementarity Scenario presented in the report models a “steady slowdown in polyester textile demand growth and stabilisation” by 2040.

As well as action from industry and consumers, Systemiq says this will require effective implementation of new policies such as the mandatory Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes proposed by the European Commission, under which fashion brands will, for the first time, be obliged to cover the costs of managing their textile waste.

Brands’ contributions will be used to finance investments into separate collection, sorting, re-use and recycling capacities, which the Commission claims will accelerate the development of this sector for textiles in line with the EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles.3

However, the proposed EPR rules have been widely questioned by environmental groups and textile industry experts, as well as NGO Changing Markets, which has stated that “to solve the problem, regulators need to include mandatory reuse and recycling targets, a tax on synthetic textiles and standards to make clothing more sustainable by design, among legal measures.”4

Systemiq also notes that “further efforts and technology/system innovations will be required beyond this Ambitious Complementarity Scenario to close the remaining gap on circularity and align with Europe’s net-zero commitment by 2050.”

It estimates that even under the Ambitious Complementarity Scenario, 2.8Mt of non-recycled PET/ polyester waste and 17.5Mt CO2e of GHG emissions will still be generated per year.

The importance of reducing the impact of polyester textiles within the context of the EU’s net zero targets cannot be overstated. Polyester remains the most widely used textile fibre worldwide, according to Textile Exchange’s most recent Preferred Fiber & Materials Market Report, published last October.5

The study found that with an annual production of around 61 million tonnes, polyester had a market share of approximately 54% of global fibre production in 2021.

Polyester has become synonymous with fast fashion, with brands sourcing the fibre due to its strength, crease-resistance, easy availability, and low-cost, but rapidly growing concerns about its inability to biodegrade and the shedding of microfibres when polyester garments are washed have put pressure on the industry, in particular in Europe amid tighter regulation on the fashion sector.

The EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles was launched by the European Commission in March 20226 and implements the commitments of the European Green Deal, with its goal of climate neutrality for the EU by 2050.7

The Commission said it wants to ensure that by 2030 “all textile products placed on the EU market are durable, repairable and recyclable, to a great extent made of recycled fibres, free of hazardous substances, produced in respect of social rights and the environment.”

A key objective for regulators and industry is to produce a greater proportion of recycled polyester from textile waste, rather than plastic bottles, in order to develop a truly circular industry. However, again there is some way to go. The Commission itself notes that globally, at present, just 1% of all clothing material is recycled into new garments.8

According to Textile Exchange’s latest Preferred Fiber & Materials Market Report, global recycled polyester fibre production was around 9 million tonnes in 2021, equating to a market share of global polyester production of 14.8%.

A report from McKinsey published in July 2022 estimated that 70% of textile waste in Europe could be fibre-to-fibre recycled – but only once effective solutions for the most widely used fibres are available.9

Activity in this space continues to accelerate and in one of the latest initiatives, Inditex, owner of the fast fashion giant Zara, last month struck a €70 million deal with Ambercycle to secure a supply of recycled polyester from the Los Angeles-based start-up.10

Under the offtake deal, Inditex will buy a “significant” portion of Ambercycle’s recycled polyester, which is made from textile waste and sold under the brand Cycora, over three years. In turn, the Inditex investment will help Ambercycle fund its first commercial-scale textile recycling factory. Production of Cycora at the plant is expected to begin around 2025.

Meanwhile, Siptex – the world’s first large-scale facility for sorting waste textiles by both colour and fibre composition using near-infrared light – is now operational in Malmö, Sweden, and is expected to pave the way for many other such projects, enabling more polyester textile waste to be recycled into new garments.11 

With global polyester production forecast to continue increasing over the coming years, it is vital that such initiatives expand and similar ones emerge as ways are sought to tackle the enormous environmental impact of fashion and textiles in Europe and elsewhere.


1 Achieving circularity of PET packaging & polyester textiles in Europe (

2 the separate collected textile,while the rest is exported.

3 Textiles strategy (

4 Take-back Trickery - Changing Markets


6 Textiles strategy (

7 The European Green Deal (

8 RESet the Trend (

9 Circular fashion in Europe: Turning waste into value | McKinsey

10 Inditex and Ambercycle sign a three-year agreement to buy regenerated polyester for over €70 million

11 Siptex - Groundbreaking Textile Sorting | News - Smart City Sweden

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Jonathan Dyson

Jonathan's work on the sports industry has been published by The Times, The Observer, The Independent and The Sun, as well as Sport Business, Off The Pitch, FC Business and Zero Carbon Academy.

He has also contributed to BBC Radio 5 Live, Middle East Eye, The Scotsman,, World Soccer, When Saturday Comes, Wisden Cricket Monthly and School Sport.

Away from sports, he has held full-time and freelance roles at a number of global B2B publishers. He was the Founding Editor of Twist - a magazine covering the latest developments across the fashion industry supply chain. The title is published by World Textile Information Network (WTiN). Following the success of the launch of Twist, Jonathan was promoted to Head of Content at WTiN. In this newly-created role, he was responsible for developing WTiN's digital content and social media presence as the company evolved from being a magazine publisher to a market-leading media company across all platforms.

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