Denim Made out of Your Old Jeans? Textile Recycling Explained
The word "recycle" has been misused in the media stating that when a celebrity re-wears a gown, it's "recycling." That's a laugh. Rewearing something should be the norm! I have, like, 5 outfits and I'm damn proud of it. A circular economy is my dream for denim, and now that we are finding ways to recycle clothing, I am more hopeful than ever. Textile recycling will play a huge role, so let's get to it.
What is textile recycling?
Now that education surrounding our clothing waste crisis is out (35% of materials in garment supply chains are wasted), we've all started talking about textile recycling. The benefits to the environment are obviously amazing. It decreases the need for landfill space, lessens the demand for dyes, reduces energy consumption, and results in less pollution due to the fact fibers do not have to be transported from abroad, and lastly, it reduces the need to produce new fibers and takes the pressure off our finite resources!
Fibre2Fashion states, "textile recycling itself is defined by the process of recovering and reusing material from old clothing (or other fiber goods). The process includes a number of steps, including donation, collection, sorting, and processing, making it a hyper-involved, multi-step process... but many believe it's worth it."
However, it would be a whole lot easier to recycle clothes if we started buying garments made from a single, biodegradable material that can be recycled or decomposed. A lot of the fast-fashion items we buy are blended with synthetics and separating the fibers is very challenging. But, when we take 100% cotton or viscose jeans, they can be easily recycled into new fibers and also have the ability to biodegrade if they do end up in the landfill. There are different processes for recycling synthetics vs. natural fibers, but it comes down to two methods: mechanically or chemically.
Most materials today are recycled mechanically, without changing their chemical structure. This reduces the quality over time as fibers get shorter and weaker during this process. This results in having to blend the recycled material with virgin fibers.
Chemical recycling, however, breaks the fabric down into its chemical structure, which can then be extruded into new fibers to make a different material, or more of the same material, without compromising the quality of the new fiber.
Infinited Fiber is one company that has developed a chemical recycling process that takes post-consumer textile waste and turns it into cotton over and over again. Their process starts with shredding the textiles and removing non-textile material, and then fiber separation where cellulose-based fibers are separated from other like polyester and elastane. The next step is a little sciency but the cellulose fibers are then activated with something called Urea (aka carbamide), which creates a stable cellulose concentrate powder. It is finally dissolved into a honey-like liquid and extruded into Infinited Fibers!
I was sent some samples of 100% Infinited Fiber jersey and 50% Infinited Fiber 50% cotton denim and I have to say, there is no difference in using virgin cotton with the quality and feel. Weekday has collaborated with them to produce denim garments and they are beautiful (picture above). I was curious about the wash down results for denim, but have no fear, the wash down capabilities are endless!
Circulose is another company that is taking clothing that cannot be resold and turning it into new cellulosic fiber. The clothes are shredded and turned into a slurry. The contaminants like polyester are then removed leaving behind pure cellulose. This slurry is dried out into sheets of Circulose and is then able to be made back into natural textile fibers. Evrnu
Like the two previous companies, Evrnu has coined it's new fiber Nucycle in which discarded clothing is turned into a new year through the same processes as above. Stella McCartney has been one of the brands that have started to incorporate it into their products.
A couple of my favorite denim brands that are actually incorporating recycled cotton in their products are Boyish, Mud Jeans, Etica, Kings Of Indigo, and Frank and Oak.
Why Textile Recycling is So Important
Tricia Carey, Lenzing director of global business development-denim said, “It’s no longer that you have a garment and you throw it away,” she said. “Because where is ‘away’ anymore? We see the effects of waste—it’s not going away. So, we have to be responsible for what we’re developing and design” read Sourcing Journal.
These words were hard-hitting for me! I find that people live by the 'out of sight, out of mind' mantra and we can't live like that anymore. While our industry is maturing, what is a conscious consumer like yourself supposed to do? You can donate unworn clothes, buy resold (therealreal.com, poshmark.com, thredup.com), and renting apparel has recently piqued my interest (renttherunway.com, nuuly.com). But the best thing we can all do is simply commit to consuming less.
I hope you learned a little about the circular economy today folks and how you can help move our industry towards it! Until next time, STAY DILIGENT FRIENDS!
If you want to geek out about textile recycling with me, check out these articles and let me know what you thought ;)