E-Textile Waste

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E-Textile Waste

This months's eTextile workspace started out with three presentations around the topic of recycling textiles and e-waste. Producers of eTextiles already encounter recycling problems on small scale productions of prototypes, so there should be a discussion to find recycling solutions before eTextiles and wearables start to be mass produced.

Mika Satomi kicked off the evening with her observations of eTextile waste from the starting point of a single sweep under her working table, finding parts of conductive thread, soldering waste and cut-off threads. She then proposed to come up with two sets of guidelines for recycling e-waste, one for the waste that comes up during production and the other for the end of life of e-products.

Probably it is a good option to start thinking about the waste already during the design process. In the planning of projects one may be able choose to use more sustainable or at least better recyclable materials. Other considerations that one could keep in mind are the scale of the production (do we want to produce 1, 10 or 10000 pieces) and the life cycle of our product (1 or 10 years?).

Download the slides as PDF

Andreas Koehler presented his research regarding e-waste. E-waste is collected from the consumers, and most of it just disappears, meaning it is mainly exported to developing countries in Africa, India or China. 

The trend of wearables is heading towards seamless integration of electronic parts, which in turn makes the product harder to recycle because the components need to be taken apart again. Also with eTextile products, people might have more than just one "smart shirt" while they still will only have one phone or computer. 

There is no recycling industry for eTextile products yet. The textile recyclers do not feel responsible and neither do the e-waste recyclers. We need a vision for waste prevention and implement it before eTextiles become a mass product. 

Download the slides as PDF

Marina Toeters showed us her research about the complex textile production cycle. How are materials harvested, processed, marketed, sold, washed, recycled? In every step of the way some companies have already started finding better and less harmful processes. For example consumers are being awarded for bringing back old garments with credit for buying new ones, or designers intentionally make clothing that can be easily taken apart for recycling. In general textile fibers are often recycled, but when adding metals to fibers for conductivity, the fibers become less valuable for textile recycling purposes. 

Download the slides as PDF

So the presentations lead to a discusison about what the eTextile community can do:


Andreas stated that the specific materials used for a lot of e-products are still not fully known. The producers don't always give out information on the exact components of materials. Thus making it hard to know how to appropriately recycle them. 

For example:

  • Steel is the best conductive to recycle, because it's magnetic and can be seperated easily from other material. 
  • Silver is quite bio-compatible, but many toxins are used in the mining process. The same applies to gold. 
  • The combination of PVC and copper is harmful, because when burnt, the two materials produce dioxins. 

So Andreas would like to be fed with information regarding the materials used by the eTextile workspace community. The idea was to make a database for the materials we use in our projects to collect the components of these materials. We should collect data on materials used such as the quantity, the supplier and the components. 

We also should ask producers how we should recycle their materials best, so if they don't have strategies yet, we the users as a community will also bring them to think about the recycling aspect of their products.


Standardization of products has been showing a good impact on waste numbers because repair and maintenance of these products become easier. 


Most e-products are designed to fail after a short life-circle. Phones are exchanged every two years, computer batteries usually fail within the same period, so people are forced to buy new products. Is there any way to change consumer/producer habits?  

Encourage Sustainable Behaviour

eTextiles could for instance help in using less energy. If we heat our clothes instead of our entire houses in winter, we could aready save a hug amount of energy. 

Raise Awareness

One of the main goals is to raise awareness on the topic. An important point made was that people teaching about wearable technology and eTextiles should also incorporate the problems with recycling with their teaching. So it becomes clear that the waste problematic should be dealt with from the beginning of the learning and design process. 

The Bigger Picture

We should not only be thinking small-scale. Dealing with eTextile waste is not only about taking apart our materials into components. Try to think like Patagonia, the clothing company that takes back the garments and returns you credit for buying new clothes. Or in a similar way like bringing back the PET-bottles to the supermarket. There could be a system rewarding users in either monetary or a fun way to bring back waste material to the producers. There are already some european directives extending the producers responsability of materials also to their recycling, so the problem of waste is already being incorporated in big scale production. 

The Contest

Beam proposed to do an open contest with the theme of eTextile waste.

The goal would be to design a garment (e.g. a skirt) that can do pollution sensing using a microcontroller. Everyone taking part designs their own garment. In the end the projects will be evaluated in terms of recyclability, sustainability and harmfulness to the environment. This way we will gain some insight in what materials are better to be used, or better to be recycled to leave the smallest possible ecological footprint.

Mika, Piem and Andreas will also consider to organize a hands-on workshop to further explore 'best practice' in e-waste.



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