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Interview with Vibeke Krohn

Vibeke Krohn
Vibeke Krohn
TOMRA Textiles
TOMRA Textiles

We are on a mission to close the gap in textiles circularity
TOMRA Textiles, a ventured owned by TOMRA Group, is on a mission to close the gap between waste textiles and fibre-to-fibre recycling, using its unique sensor-based sorting technology to create solutions and develop value chains that enable textiles circularity at scale. In an interview with Fibre2Fashion, CEO Vibeke Krohn discusses sorting and recycling of textiles.

In what ways do you believe industry stakeholders can leverage digitalisation and data analytics to optimise resource recovery processes?

Digitalisation will be important as an add-on in sorting and preparation for recycling, and not least in ensuring traceability and transparency in value chains. With increasing requirements for documenting and reporting on ESG impact across a wider range of industries, digitalisation and data analytics becomes especially vital. This is why we see a robust digital core as a key pillar for enabling textiles circularity.

How do you see the circular economy concept evolving within the recycling industry, and what role do you think technological innovation will play in driving its adoption and implementation on a broader scale?

The circular economy is the blueprint and the north star of the entire recycling industry. We need to shift from established linear value chain models of traditional resource-intensive industries, towards models promoting and incentivising circularity. Here, technology will be essential in making it efficient, precise and convenient to choose circular solutions. While technology will make solutions even better, designing experiences that make recycling easy will be crucial to success.

Can you provide an overview of TOMRA’s technical solutions and how they contribute to sustainability and resource efficiency?

At TOMRA, we are committed to leading the resource revolution, in a world where every resource counts. This is a mission with urgency: the global population is growing, yet the planet’s resources are limited. We need to develop the circular economy and make more efficient use of our planet’s resources. TOMRA’s solutions are targeted at helping address these big challenges. Our technology deploys sensor-based detection and sorting technology to ensure materials are kept in use for as long as possible, and to avoid landfill or incineration.
Currently, TOMRA addresses three main sectors: 1) Collection and reverse vending of used beverage containers (bottles and cans) – keeping them in a continuous loop of reuse, 2) Sorting of waste and metals – ensuring resource recovery through advanced sorting turning waste into value, and 3) Food – transforming global food production to maximise food safety and minimise food loss by making every resource count.
In addition, we are continuously exploring how our technology and solutions can be applied in new areas to further our overarching mission. TOMRA Horizon was established with this in mind, and currently consists of three ventures. One of these is Textiles, as we believe our technology will be essential in helping close the gap in textiles circularity.

What are some recent technological advancements TOMRA has made in the field of recycling and resource recovery?

We are continuously developing and optimising our technology and invest heavily in research and development. This year (2024), Tomra Food launched three new artificial intelligence-powered sorting and grading solutions. In 2023, Tomra Recycling unveiled Innosort Flake, a solution that allows simultaneous flake sorting by colour, polymer, and transparency, and can handle highly contaminated inputs. We also just recently announced 25 per cent stake investment in AI waste analysis startup PolyPerception – strengthening our position in AI technology.

What role do deposit return systems play in promoting textile recycling, and how does TOMRA support their implementation?

Deposit return systems have proven their effectiveness in areas such as used beverage containers, obtaining above 90 per cent return rates in most markets where they have been implemented. Our experience is that effective deposit return systems are dependent on clear legislation such as an extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme and sufficient incentives, i.e. that all stakeholders involved – including the consumer – have sufficient reason to choose the sustainable option. A make-use-throw model is always the most convenient for an end user, but it is the least desirable and least sustainable model for the environment. We believe there are lessons to be taken from other waste streams, including single-use plastics, when developing systems to promote textile recycling. TOMRA’s recently published whitepaper, ‘Transforming Textiles’, highlights four key beliefs to enable textiles circularity. These beliefs point to regulations and incentives, collaboration across the value chain, investments in infrastructure and a strong digital core. We believe all these elements are essential to build a robust circular value chain for textiles – which could involve a deposit return system.

What measures does TOMRA take to ensure its technical solutions comply with relevant regulations and industry standards?

Compliance with local laws and regulations, as well as with international standards and ISO regimes is essential for a company like TOMRA. We have an installed base of more than 100,000 units across 100 markets, and spend considerable time and resources to ensure we comply with all relevant regulations and industry standards in all the sectors and jurisdictions we operate in. Our machines handle everything from used beverage containers to other forms of plastic packaging, to metals and minerals, to delicate foods. Moving into the textiles space, we see that further optimisation for sorting textiles is necessary – and this is also an area where new recycling techniques are being developed at rapid pace and where standards are being shaped as we speak. We are engaging actively in this development.

Could you provide insights into TOMRA’s approach to extended producer responsibility (EPR)?

We believe strongly in extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes as a vehicle to transform industries and encourage resource optimisation across sectors. Without regulations and incentives, the shift to circular value chains will be challenging and slow – and we believe that a level of legislative intervention is required in most cases. That said, EPR schemes need to consider the sector they apply to and the context they are going to work for. There is no ‘one size fits all’, but there are clearly lessons to be taken from regions, countries and sectors that have implemented EPR schemes. We build on our own experiences with EPRs in various markets and sectors, and frequently engage with policymakers, NGOs and business partners to facilitate and inform such discussions. These experiences are also documented in our whitepapers, which also include clear recommendations.

How does TOMRA integrate circularity principles into its textile sorting and recycling solutions?

We believe all our solutions, regardless of which material stream they are handling, need to be built on principles of circularity. We have decided to integrate circularity in our products from the design phase, starting with our reverse vending machines (RVMs). By 2030, we have committed to ensuring that new TOMRA products are made almost entirely from sustainable materials and components, and that at least half of our products are circular at their end of life.

Could you elaborate on TOMRA’s approach to integrating data analytics and sensor technologies into its sorting machines?

Traceability and transparency are critical to building credible circular value chains. We see that this is particularly important in sectors where there is little tradition and few incentives to sort and collect waste separately, or to hand back used products when they reach end of life. A robust digital core is key to document towards all stakeholders – policymakers, customers/suppliers and consumers themselves – that what is being collected is actually recycled, and that waste streams find their way back into the loop after the first use.

How do you address the challenges associated with sorting and recycling different types of textiles?

To realise textile circularity, it is necessary to build industrial-scale solutions that can handle the significant volumes of waste textiles out there. High-volume, high-precision sorting is a critical step in closing the gap between mountains of collected textile waste and the various recycling technologies that either exist or are emerging. Our approach is to build solutions that can serve any type of recycling technology, be it mechanical, chemical, bio-based or any other combination of techniques. We engage with waste management companies and recycling companies to identify the common denominators and emerging standards in this space. To us, industrial scale means building solutions that address the lion’s share of waste volumes in an efficient way, while leaving room for tailoring to and optimising for the needs of both waste managers and recyclers.

Can you discuss TOMRA’s long-term vision and goals for the textile recycling sector?

TOMRA builds on more than 50 years of experience in circular technology. We are here to lead the resource revolution and realise a world without waste. That means addressing all waste streams in a systematic manner, and we believe the textiles value chain is ripe for transformation. We have set up TOMRA Textiles as a separate venture because we see a value chain that today is broken, or even non-existent, and our ambition is to take an active role by building and operating sorting facilities, together with relevant partners. Succeeding with textiles circularity will require collaboration and partnerships, that is why we are actively engaging with a broad set of stakeholders and potential business partners.

Looking ahead, what are the key technological trends or innovations that TOMRA is focusing on?

TOMRA is a tech company, and we are always experimenting and pushing boundaries of technology. We do not necessarily jump on trends as such, but clearly we are pursuing at least three broad vectors in tech innovation: AI, which has taken a significant leap and where we see more and more practical applications; security, which continues to be critical to any tech operation; and the digitalisation of everything, which shows up in how we are now able to record and measure even more parameters, using data to fuel the creation of circular value chains.

What emerging technologies do you see as having the greatest potential to revolutionise the recycling and waste management industry in the coming years?

We believe there remains a massive untapped potential for deploying AI in the recycling and waste management industry. We have developed a deep learning add-on to our primary product Autosort, which makes it possible to sort objects that could previously not be separated based on their form and texture. For now, this is optimised for plastics, but we see potential here also for other waste streams.

With increasing global concern over textile waste, what technological advancements or strategies do you think are most promising for improving the sorting and recycling of textile waste?

We are excited to see new partnerships and collaboration emerge, and to see brands, waste collectors and recyclers work together towards solutions rather than fighting for owning “their” share of all textile waste. Scaling solutions means we need to handle this on a systems level, and collaborations across the value chain paired with investments in infrastructure are essential in making this happen.
Interviewer: Shilpi Panjabi
Published on: 02/04/2024

DISCLAIMER: All views and opinions expressed in this column are solely of the interviewee, and they do not reflect in any way the opinion of Fibre2Fashion.com.