Apparel is said to make up 6-7% of household waste in the US. That’s a lot. There are many steps to the recycling process. The post-consumer apparel needs to be collected, sorted according to its fiber content, stripped of non-fabric elements like buttons or zippers, and then treated chemically or mechanically to separate the fibers. Apparel waste that is made from 100% cotton, polyester or wool can be down-cycled into products like insulation, stuffing and rags. Blended fabrics like tri-blends and performance fabrics blended with spandex or elastane can’t be recycled and end up in landfills.
Using recycled materials sounds like a great way to manufacture apparel more sustainably. Some brands utilize blended yarns spun from recycled plastic bottles and post-industrial cotton waste, which tackles two problems at once. But currently the cost of garment recycling is high and the quality of the fibers produced isn’t that great when compared to new materials.
Research being conducted at the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) is looking to change that. The organization’s Innovation for Sustainability report highlights some brand new applied technologies to recycle and up-cycle blended fabrics.
The first is a hydrothermal treatment that uses stirred heated vessels and filtration to separate polyester and cotton fibers. The process recovers 98% of polyester fibers, which are the same quality as new and can be used to spin and manufacture new fabric. The cotton decomposes as cellulose powder that can be used in other applications. The process itself uses less energy and water than older recycling methods and doesn’t employ harmful chemicals or solvents.
The second innovation uses enzymatic hydrolysis to separate fibers into polyester that can be recycled into new fabrics and bio products that can be recycled into non-fabric products like dining ware made from bio plastics, cleaning agents made from bio surfactants and cosmetics made from bio chemicals.
The Institute is also working on a dry, closed textile up-cycling system that produces clean, usable fibers, the development of super absorbent polymers from textile waste that have agricultural applications, and other enhanced applications for recycled fibers and their components.
With innovations like these, hopefully someday we will actually be able to recycle the clothes we have worn into new ones, which is also something HKRITA is working on with their closed-loop, garment-to-garment recycling system that can take a garment through the entire recycling process and produce a sanitized, recycled garment all within the space of a 40-foot shipping container.