New Recycling Method Could Make Fast Fashion Less Wasteful

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Fast fashion is terrible for the environment. A combination of low-quality manufacturing and rapidly changing trends mean that after just a few months, your closet is at best out of style, and at worst, totally falling apart. In the U.S., people throw away 14 million tons of clothing a year, and although clothes recycling exists, according to Newsweek, only 0.1 percent of used clothing collected by nonprofits and recycling programs actually gets recycled back into new textiles.

Now, researchers are trying to make textile recycling a whole lot more useful, reducing the amount of fabric that ends up in landfills, according to Popular Science. At the American Chemical Society’s annual meeting on April 3, a team of chemists from Aalto University in Finland presented a new method for upcycling clothes that makes the new fabric stronger than the used fibers it came from.

When you recycle your clothes, that fabric usually doesn't become a new shirt or pair of pants. That's because by the time a fabric is reprocessed into something new, it’s nowhere near as strong as the original. The original fibers have to be chopped up to make the fabric into something new, and those short, chopped-up fibers make weak yarn. Recycling textiles can also be complicated because often, a piece of clothing isn’t just made from one type of fabric. Cotton has to be processed differently than polyester, for instance, so it’s difficult to recycle a shirt made from a blend of the two.

1) The cotton-polyester blend being dissolved. 2) Separating the cellulose from the polyester. 3) Spinning new fibers. Image Credit: Simone Haslinger // Herbert Sixta, Ph.D.

But the Aalto University researchers used an ionic liquid (liquid salt) that dissolves the cellulose found in natural materials like cotton into a new, stronger material that can be spun into fibers for new textiles. When they applied this liquid to a poly-cotton blend, it dissolved the cotton, but not the polyester. Once the cotton dissolved, the polyester just needed to be filtered out. The dissolved cellulose can be used to make stronger fibers, spinning them into a fabric that feels similar to the wood-pulp-derived fabric Tencel. However, the researchers are still figuring out whether the remaining polyester can be re-spun for use in new fabric.

The method isn’t ready for commercial use yet, but it could be a major step toward making the fashion industry more environmentally friendly. Since recycled fabric isn't high enough quality to go into new clothes, often, recycling programs funnel old textiles toward becoming building insulation or industrial rags. By making recycled fabric into just as high quality of a product as the original, this new process could allow discarded fabrics to be used in far more products.

[h/t Popular Science]