Recycling has long been a pain point in the textile sector. Intensifying regulations and rising industry-wide demand highlight the need for a breakthrough. Fortunately, textile recycling technology is already reshaping existing methods.
Reshaping Textile Recycling Is Necessary
Most fabrics entering the commercial market will end up in landfills. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency projected the United States produced 17 million tons of textile waste in 2018 but recycled only 2.5 million tons. This trend strains suppliers and manufacturers because environmental regulations are intensifying.
For instance, the European Commission is looking to restrict textile waste exportation, establish design limitations and address the lack of a closed-loop recycling system by 2030. This move is in response to new industry data — like the European Environmental Agency’s report textile consumption produced 270 kilograms of carbon emissions per person in 2020, totaling 121 million metric tons.
Looming regulations and rules aside, the industry needs a breakthrough because textile treatment is incredibly resource-intensive. For instance, every kilogram of fiber needs up to 200 liters of water for processes like dying, scouring and washing. Generating new material takes far more effort — and, more importantly, money — than recycling.
Current Methods Cannot Keep Up With Demand
While breakthrough waste reduction methods like blockchain supply chain tracking and artificial intelligence demand forecasting show incredible promise, this industry must still close the loop. In other words, it needs to reshape itself by adopting a new textile recycling technology.
The rise of fast fashion — the mass production of low-quality clothing to outpace trends — has substantially contributed to the industry’s current recycling problem. From 2000 to 2020, general textile demand increased by over 400% globally. A permanent, commercially viable solution becomes more pressing by the day as consumption skyrockets.
Currently, the industry has no closed-loop or circular system to give items a second chance. Globally, only 25% of textile waste is recycled — the remaining 75% ends up in landfills or incinerators. When suppliers, manufacturers and retailers let their products be destroyed instead of renewed, they leave money on the table.
What Are the Biggest Textile Recycling Challenges?
Currently, the textile industry faces three main challenges. The first is the overabundance of blended fabrics — using mechanical recycling to separate cotton and polyester fibers is impossible. However, organic, semi-synthetic and synthetic materials cannot be recycled together.
The second main challenge is the need for more standardization. While many potential fixes exist, no one solution is accessible and cost-effective enough for everyone to adopt. Because of this, only 1% of textile fabric gets recycled into new clothing.
Fiber deterioration is the third main challenge. Being broken down, respun and scoured dozens of times would wear anyone down. Eventually, the material will not be able to pass through the system unscathed. All things must come to an end — no matter how great the recycling technique is — and it is up to the textile industry to find a viable alternative to landfills and incinerators.
Improving waste reduction and growing the second-hand economy cannot compensate for the sudden, staggering rise in textile consumption. Moreover, the industry needs a way to address the many existing gaps — like how resale stores have items they cannot resell and manufacturers have leftover fabric scraps.
Chemical Textile Recycling Technology Offers a Solution
Chemical textile recycling technology shows extreme promise. They can easily dissolve, manipulate or separate blended fabrics — often at minimal cost, which is what every industry professional wants to hear.
In 2023, researchers discovered they could dissolve polyester in 24 hours with a solution of hartshorn salt, a non-toxic solvent and heat. This mixture turns into ammonia, carbon dioxide and water, triggering a chemical reaction that separates blended fabrics. The team realized they could fully preserve the cotton fibers with this method.
Although this specific chemical recycling technology has only been lab-tested, the research team is already in the process of scaling for industrial applications. Considering how easily sourceable and environmentally safe the ingredients are, they will likely achieve their goal sooner rather than later. Soon, industry professionals nationwide may be using this breakthrough process.
In contrast, another research team discovered a chemical textile recycling technology to separate polyester from cotton. Using enzymes, they can disintegrate organic material in blended fabrics — leaving only pure polyester. From there, they recycle the clean polyester like usual. Amazingly, they also found a use for the cotton slurry as a fertilizer.
Another chemical recycling method growing in popularity is enzymatic depolymerization. It can break down organic fibers and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) — one of the most common plastics — into renewable building blocks. Afterward, the leftover material can be respun and turned into usable fiber.
Biological Textile Recycling Technology Shows Promise
Bio-recycling methods leverage biotechnology to reduce natural materials to their most basic parts. These innovative techniques are cost-effective, a massive leap in circular recycling and beneficial for the planet. After the organic textile waste disintegrates, it can be used as a fertilizer or in compost.
Biological textile recycling technology uses microorganisms to decompose organic fibers, breaking them down into simple molecules. Currently, this technique only works on natural and semi-synthetic textile waste because nature has not evolved to rapidly degrade man-made materials yet. That being said, it is still an exciting breakthrough because it produces organic fertilizer as a byproduct.
Advancing Existing Methods Is Crucial
While research teams and startups have discovered new recycling methods, some groups have focused on advancing existing processes. When they find creative ways to make old techniques work for textile waste, they save time and money on research and development. Additionally, they can commercialize or industrialize much faster.
Instead of turning polyester into a slurry, some organizations have decided to make it useful. Project Plan B — a joint effort between industry specialists and the Salvation Army Trading Company — applied a conventional plastic recycling method to textile waste. The process creates pellets that can turn into yarn.
The minds behind Project Plan B already have a large-scale machine ready to go. They believe the new textile recycling technology will process 2,500 metric tons in its first year and 5,000 in its second. This innovative technique is doubly useful because it renews polyester while helping the second-hand economy.
Textile Recycling Technology Needed a Breakthrough
This sector’s waste poses a massive environmental and financial burden. Fortunately, chemical, biological and advanced technologies offer a solution. While it may take time for these innovative techniques to become commercially viable, there’s no doubt they will. After all, they’re cost-effective, fast and convenient. Soon, they will reshape modern textile recycling.
Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized Magazine, an online publication that explores innovations in science and technology.