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New Textile Recycling Tech to Transform The Fashion Industry

What can be termed a breakthrough discovery, scientists have surfaced with a new chemical recycling technique that holds the capability to change the fashionable world by trying to overcome the looming and gaining mess of textile wastes. Using chemicals and microwaves, the method developed by researchers at the University of Delaware breaks down blended fabrics into reusable molecules. It offers a potential solution to the environmental crisis of fast fashion.

With fast production cycles and trends that are worn out pretty fast, the fashion industry produces 92 million tons of waste annually. Of these, only an eighth part undergoes recycling, with most ending up in landfills or incinerators, thereby causing enormous pollution. In other words, the need to mend this problem has never been more pressing, as analyzed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

A Science Advances paper published a few weeks ago revealed the discovery of a new process of recycling all cotton, polyester, nylon, and spandex blends in just 15 minutes. The microwave-assisted glycolysis process breaks synthetic fibers down into their very basic molecules, which can be used again to make new fabrics or a variety of other products, from dyes and electronics to tires. “Our ability to develop technology to handle all this waste and remove it from the environment, landfills, and the oceans is very important,” said Dionisios Vlachos, a co-author of the study.

This chemical method is much more versatile than the traditional recycling techniques that are hampered by the use of blended fabrics. This process can treat textiles containing unknown proportions of fibers, a vast improvement on the existing techniques. But it’s not without its challenges, particularly with the solvent used to break down polyester, which is both expensive and hard to recover.

Despite these hurdles, the potential impact of this technology is immense. Researchers estimate that with further development, up to 88% of clothing worldwide could be recycled. This would mark a significant step towards a circular economy in fashion, where materials are continuously reused, reducing the need for new resources. “Ideally, if we recycled all textile waste, we would have enough materials forever and we wouldn’t need to produce new materials,” said Miriam Ribul, a senior research fellow in Materials Circularity at the Royal College of Art in London.

But it will also necessitate additional ways of trimming waste from the fashion industry, including by making stronger clothes, and more people selling their old garments. But when all those options are tapped out, chemical recycling could be an important last line of defense. “This would be the final stage for the leftovers that just have no other purpose,” said Tasha Lewis, an associate clinical professor in fashion and retail studies at Ohio State University.

While the research lab is working on commercializing this process, they hope it will shortly make a shift from the lab toward real-world application. The lead author, Erha Andini, is writing a business plan for launching a startup that can take this recycling technique to the marketplace. “It’ll be a matter of having the capital or not,” she said, “but we’re working on it and excited for it.”

This ingenuity in textile recycling could open up new vistas toward sustainable fashion and yet significantly reduce an industry’s environmental footprint, charting a course toward a responsible future.

More for you:

  • Why clothes are so hard to recycle, and how scientists plan to cut fashion waste.
  • ‘Chemical recycling’: A 15-minute reaction turns old clothes into useful molecules.
  • A polyester-dissolving process could make modern clothing recyclable.

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