AFTERLIFE 4 –MECHANICAL RECYCLE
We design with the end in mind. Read on for part 4 of our Afterlife Mini-Series.
Afterlife 4 –Mechanical Recycle
Today we are looking at the oft misunderstood concept of garment recycling. Wait, I can hear you say, aren't I recycling my pre-loved clothes when I take them to the op-shop or when I sell them on depop? The answer is no, not technically. You are enabling them to be re-used, which is an important "R" in the user phase of a garment lifecycle as way too many garments go to an early grave. Still, we aren't addressing the true end of life yet and that is where things like composting or recycling come into play. With these, we are either sending nutrients back into the natural system or we are reprocessing the goods technically to create a new raw material (and a whole new lifecycle). Whether this lifecycle is as another garment or something else isn't so important, as long as it is commanding equal or higher value. Recycling into something of lower value would actually be down-cycling - which has a place in the circular economy too.
The early stages of recycling might look a lot like re-use (think the collection and sorting part) but is missing two vital steps, the reprocessing and conversion of waste into raw materials. The Oxford Dictionary defines recycling as "the reprocessing of discarded waste materials for reuse, which involves collection, sorting, processing, and conversion into raw materials which can be used in the production of new products."
Here's where semantics are important, if someone claims (a re-seller, a charity shop) they are recycling your old garments for you, they are 9.99 times out of 10, referring to reselling for re-use. True recycling of textiles is much rarer, especially in Western countries. There are a small handful of companies that can recycle textiles, but more often than not, they are shredding the textiles down into shoddy (see pic below) which is then used as insulation which again, is down-cycling.
So how can clothes be truly recycled? The process we will explore today, is the mechanical process and it's nothing new technologically. It is however, very under-utilised in the industry and more often than not it is because most clothes were not made for recycling in the first place. Sigh.
Shoddy – At Novotex Recycling Facility - photo by Courtney Holm.
Afterlife Case Study 4 – Mechanical Recycle
Preamble: Mechanical recycling is basic. It literally involves shredding and loosening up textile waste until it is in fibre form and then putting it back through a normal process for textile manufacturing (so carding, spinning, knitting/weaving, cutting and finally sewing). It seems like a no brainer, but the complications come from the fact that when we chop up the old textiles to bring them back to fibre form, that we loose the length (and therefore strength) we had from the original virgin raw material. The shoddy (fancy word for chopped up old textiles) is usually of very short fibre length and often, to get better strength properties, will be blended with a virgin raw material before it's spun into new yarns. These virgin materials are usually polyester or cotton. The original materials are God knows what.
Loosened recycled and blended fibres, ready for carding - photo by Courtney Holm.
Which brings me to this fun fact. The highest value raw material for this kind of recycling is 100% cotton. Plain and simple 100% cotton. Anything else, even a 90/10 blend or a different fibre, is not as valuable as its quality deteriorates immensely when put through the mechanical recycling process. This includes polyester seams, labels, plastisol prints and any percentage of spandex. When it comes to best case scenario for garment recycling ( we are not counting provenance or water consumption here), 100% cotton is where it's at from a sustainability perspective.
For this reason, we will focus this post on our highest value garments for this recycling process. That is simple, mono material, single colour pieces that could enter a mechanical recycling process, be blended with 50% virgin cotton and remade into a new quality garment. And isn't that exciting! The single colour choice is also intentional, because it is very hard to remove dyes in clothing. It is much smarter to colour sort them, and process them with their like colours to remove the need for re-bleaching (with questionable success) and re-dyeing. Whereas whites and un-dyed goods could easily be over-dyed. The end goal here is to rely LESS virgin cotton, and if we were to nail this process for ourselves and those in the industry who were committed to designing for circularity, we could feasibly cut virgin cotton use in half by recovering and recycling our cotton garments and offcuts this way.
So let's pick some worthy candidates (though there are several) that are single colour and mono-material, 100% Cotton with no complex additions (like fusing or buttons). We think the white A.01, A.02 and A.15 are great examples.
A.02 Semi-Cropped T-Shirt in Fair Trade GOTS Organic Cotton.
Birth ➝ Between the A.01, A.02 and A.15 there are three different knits of fabrics. All were born as cotton plants in India on a Fair Trade Co-op farm. Grown organically with no pesticides, herbicides or insecticides and no GMO seeds or synthetic fertilisers, the fibre came out of the cotton bud as one of nature's most amazing contributions to modern clothing. Cotton is one of a kind in its simplicity. You could pick the cotton from the bud and immediately spin it into a yarn. Even our eco-heralded linens and hemps require heavy processing before this could be done.
The fibres are ginned (stalky bits are removed and the cotton is smoothed and baled) and spun before being sent to Victoria, Australia to our mill in Melton South. Here our three unique fabrics are knitted in one of the last remaining knitting mills in Australia and then sent to the dye-house to be whitened with GOTS approved oxygen bleach. The fabric is delivered to the A.BCH factory and we cut it with minimal waste, and stitch up each of our garments with GOTS organic cotton threads. We affix our organic cotton label inside and the removable brand label (currently made from rPET) on the back. That's pretty much it. The simplicity of the garments match the simplicity of the materials and the very fibre itself.
Life ➝ Designed for standard laundering, our tees are covered by free repairs for life or we'll teach you how to DIY. We all know white tees can get, erm, less white over time, and that's ok. We recommend using a laundry bar (our fav is the Ethique one) to remove any unwanted discolouration or to try an oxygen bleach soak.
Afterlife ➝ The simplicity of materials is what makes this ideal for mechanical recycling. It can be sent back to us and on to the ragger for shredding and re-blending with virgin materials like organic cotton, to be reborn a 50% Recycled 50% Organic Cotton jersey or French Terry. It could stay white or be over-dyed in any colour, using GOTS approved dyes of course. Think it sounds outlandish? We are knee deep in trials to make this a reality!
Imagine if garments were all designed with the end in mind? Designers and manufacturers wouldn't put nasty polyester sewing threads or spandex into their clothes, rendering them worthless at the end. Together, we would increase demand for the amazing innovations that have been core to the A.BCH materials library. Our recyclers would have such a better time sorting and processing garments, knowing exactly what's in them and what Afterlife is best.
Wear your values. Pictured Left to Right. All in white 100% Fair Trade, GOTS organic cotton, you can shop the A.01 Long Slim T-shirt, A.02 Semi-Crop T-Shirt and A.15 Unisex Classic T-Shirt and rest easy knowing your tee will never end up with the bulk of white t-shirts in landfill.
We have one more post on Afterlife, and I hope you'll read it. It's the future! Check out Bio-Chemical Recycling next.
Or get in touch with your thoughts.