(Talk): Today we produce more clothes than ever before. And the driver for that is primarily economic, not human needs. Over the past decade, the term “circular economy” has entered the lexicon of the fashion industry, where materials are made to be reused and recycled by design.
However, we have not seen the same level of recycling in fashion as in other spaces, such as plastic recycling, for example. And that is mainly because it is much harder to recycle clothes.
The use of recycled polyester and cotton by brands such as H&M and Cotton On are key aspects of these companies ’sustainability initiatives, but the source of these recycled fibers is usually not clothing. Recycled polyester usually comes from plastic bottles, and recycled cotton is usually produced from industrial waste.
The fact is that most clothes are simply not designed for recycling. Even when it is, the fashion industry lacks the infrastructure needed to truly embrace the circular economy model.
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Why is recycling clothes difficult?
Recycling clothes is not like recycling paper, glass or metal. Clothing is infinitely variable and unpredictable. Thus, they are not ideal for recycling technologies, which require persistent and consistent source material.
Even seemingly simple garments can contain more materials, and fiber blends such as cotton / polyester and cotton / elastane are common.
Different fibers have different recycling capacities. Natural fibers such as wool or cotton can be mechanically recycled. In this process, the fabric is chopped and spun again into yarn, from which new fabric can be woven or knitted.
However, the fibers become shorter through the shredding process, resulting in lower quality yarn and fabric. Recycled cotton is often mixed with virgin cotton to ensure better yarn quality.
Most fabrics are also dyed with chemicals, which can have an impact on recycling. If the original fabric is a mixture of many colors, the new yarn or fabric will probably need bleaching to be dyed a new color.
An intricate garment such as a lined jacket easily contains more than five different materials, as well as embellishments including buttons and zippers. If the goal of recycling is to get the material as close to the original as possible, all components and fibers of the garment should be separated first.
This requires work and can be expensive. It is often easier to chop a garment and turn it into a substandard product, such as a bad one used for insulation.
Industry progress and challenges
Companies such as BlockTexx and Evrnu have developed processes for recycling mixed fabric fibers, although such recycled fibers are not yet widely available.
Through proprietary technology, BlockTexx separates cellulose (present in cotton and linen) and polyester from textile and clothing waste for new uses, including new clothing. And Evrnu developed a type of viscose that is made entirely of textile and clothing waste.
The Spanish company Recover carefully sorts different types of cotton textile waste to produce high-quality, mechanically recycled cotton fibers.
There is also biological recycling. Fiber waste from Rivcott cotton “gin” (or cotton engine) is composted to become fertilizer for new cotton crops. The same is possible with natural fibers from worn-out clothing, after potentially toxic dyes and chemicals have been eliminated.
Synthetic fibers such as polyester and polyamide (nylon) can also be recycled mechanically and chemically. Chemical recycling through re-polymerization (where the plastic fiber melts) is an attractive option, as the quality of the original fiber can be maintained.
In theory, it is possible to use polyester clothing as a source for this. But in practice the source is usually bottles. This is because clothing is usually “contaminated” with other materials such as buttons and zippers, and separating them is too strenuous.
Almost all recycled polyester in clothing today comes from recycled plastic bottles, not from previous polyester clothing. This is important when you consider that polyester accounts for more than 60% of total fiber use.
Given the sharp rise in synthetic fiber production and the as yet unknown impact of microplastics (documented in human placenta last year) – the question remains whether clothing should be made of biocompatible materials at all.
Polyester clothing, regardless of the source of the fiber, contributes to microplastic pollution by discarding the fibers when worn and washed.
A new generation of synthetic fibers from renewable sources (recyclable and biodegradable) offers a way forward. For example, Kintra fiber is made from corn.
Reduce and reuse before recycling
There is a lot of evidence that reducing the consumption of clothes by wearing items for longer and buying used ones is more desirable than buying clothes made of recycled fibers.
But even used fashion is not without problems when you consider the volume and pace of today’s clothing production.
Liz Ricketts of the American Foundation OR, a charity focused on sustainable fashion, paints a gruesome picture of the Kantamanto market in Ghana, where much of used clothing in the world (including Australia) ends up.
One way forward is for companies to take responsibility for end-of-life products. American fashion brand Eileen Fisher is a pioneer in this field.
The company has been purchasing garments from customers since 2009. They are cleaned and sorted and mainly resold under the Eileen Fisher Renew brand.
Garments that are too damaged for resale are handed over to a dedicated design team, who redesigns them for sale as part of the Eileen Fisher Resewn collection. The remnants of this process are captured and turned into textiles for further use.
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Author Timo Rissanen, Associate Professor, Sydney University of Technology