Recycled cotton-based clothing is very tricky, but that’s about to change

The waste generated by the fashion and clothing industry is massive, and not just because of the items that are worn a few times before being discarded in favor of the latest trends. Recycling clothing made from cotton is tricky business, meaning pieces like jeans and shirts often become rags rather than being broken down and repurposed as high-quality garments.

A new breakthrough could overcome this problem, however, with scientists demonstrating a new technique that returns cotton to a fiber form suitable for mass manufacturing. The reason recycling clothing items like pants, trousers, and shirts is so difficult, at least in a way that reproduces items of the same quality, is because they are typically made from a mix of fibers. For example. the fabric in one garment can include polyester, elastane (spandex), or other chemical fibers, and untangling the right ingredients from this mish-mash of materials is no mean feat.

In the team’s sights was a type of manufactured fiber known as a viscose rayon fiber. These are typically made from wood-based cellulose, which acts as a “pulp” starter material that is dissolved in a solution and then spun into the regenerated cellulosic fibers. But a team of scientists at Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research has been working with Swedish company re:newcell to investigate more eco-friendly starter materials.

The company sent Fraunhofer cellulose sheets made of recycled cotton, which the institute was able to turn into yarn measuring several kilometers long made of 100-percent cellulose and with comparable quality to those made from wood-based cellulose. Critically, the team says the technique is compatible with standard procedures for producing viscose rayon, suggesting that it could be integrated into these processes as a way of giving discarded cotton clothing a new lease on life.

Considering that cotton clothing usually winds up getting incinerated or ends up in the landfill, this new process that enables a garment to be recycled multiple times could be a major breakthrough in the battle to clean up the fashion industry.

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