Eco Innovation

Innovative tech reshapes clothes recycling

19th January 2024
Sheryl Miles

Recent advancements in textile recycling technology are offering promising solutions to the clothing industry and their pressing need for the sustainable disposal of used clothes.

Traditional methods of disposal, such as incineration, contribute significantly to environmental pollution, releasing harmful gases and perpetuating a cycle of waste. However, a team from Aarhus University has made a pivotal discovery in recycling elastane fibres – a common component in modern clothing.

Their approach utilises a chemical process combining alcohol with potassium hydroxide, a substance found in ordinary drain cleaner. This unique combination accelerates the reaction needed to break down elastane fibres. Although the process is still in its nascent stages, being tested on small-scale items like nylon stockings, it represents a significant step forward. However, the technology's scalability is contingent on industrial adoption, particularly in countries with robust chemical industries, such as Germany​​.

Simultaneously, French company CETIA has introduced a mechanical solution to recycle textiles. Leveraging AI and laser technology, their machine can rapidly sort clothes by colour and composition, and efficiently remove hard elements like zippers and buttons. This innovation addresses a significant bottleneck in textile recycling – the separation of mixed materials – traditionally a laborious, hand-operated process.

Presently, only about 1% of textiles in Europe are recycled back into new clothes, underscoring the urgency for such technological advancements​​.

The environmental impact of these technologies cannot be overstated as incinerating used clothing releases a myriad of pollutants, contributing to air quality degradation and greenhouse gas emissions. By contrast, recycling textiles not only mitigates these environmental harms but also promotes a circular economy, reducing the need for virgin materials.

The push for sustainable textile recycling is further bolstered by the fast fashion industry's response to increasing environmental concerns. The Fashion Pact, signed by over 160 brands, commits to using low-impact raw materials, such as recycled fibres. Major brands like Adidas and Inditex (Zara's owner) have set ambitious targets to incorporate recycled materials into their products. This industry shift is supported by numerous startups developing chemical recycling technologies to convert cotton-rich clothing into new fibres. However, the success of these initiatives hinges on overcoming challenges in recycling blended materials like poly-cotton, a prevalent fabric in fast fashion​​.

Recycling textiles from hype to reality entails significant investment in infrastructure for collecting, sorting, and processing textile waste. It is estimated that achieving a recycling rate of 18%–26% by 2030 in Europe could create substantial economic benefits, generate new jobs, and significantly reduce CO2 emissions. This vision demands a collaborative approach, involving brands, investors, suppliers, recyclers, and governments.

By transitioning from traditional, linear models of production and disposal to more sustainable, circular methods, the clothing industry can significantly reduce its ecological footprint, and as these new technologies evolve and scale, the dream of a sustainable textile industry could become a reality, offering a blueprint for other sectors to follow.

The innovations in textile recycling, from chemical processes to mechanical sorting, are crucial steps towards a more sustainable and environmentally responsible clothing industry. These advancements hold the promise of reducing waste, mitigating environmental damage, and fostering a circular economy, crucial for the health of our planet.

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