TEXTILES 101: RECYCLED CONTENT
Main image: The New Denim Project. Written by Courtney Holm.
Textiles 101 : Recycled Content
Ahhhh Circular Fashion. The term is fast becoming as mis/overused as Sustainable Fashion. I hear people in and out of the industry talk rather narrowly about clothing re-sale, making leggings from recycled PET bottles and event-wear rental as circular in and of themselves. Alas, none of these things (in isolation) are circular fashion.
Even textile recycling, the so-called holy grail of circularity, leaves a lot more to be desired before it can be crowned circular pinnacle and saviour to all fashion waste woes.
Yet, textile recycling is an important aspect of circular design so long as the systems are set up around it, there is knowledge and transparency around material makeup and those who hold the waste (whether waste collectors or consumers) know when and what to do with said textile waste.
Textile Sorting Facility - Adobe Stock Image
The definition of recycling is waste material reprocessed into a new material of equal quality to serve another lifecycle. Simple. But when we talk about recycled content fabrics, there are several ways in which this can be done from a processes perspective. There are also several ways feedstock (aka the waste materials that can be reconstituted into new materials) can be acquired and used. So let's learn a bit more about these.
The two key processes for textile waste recycling are:
– Mechanical Recycling
– Chemical Recycling
Most textile recycling today is done by Mechanical Recycling. Here, garments, textiles or yarns are ripped and loosened back into fibres like they were originally - albeit shorter than they used to be. The process is often referred to in the industry as "ragging". The shortness of the fibre lengths results in a weaker fibre that may snap under the tensions of spinning, weaving and knitting - required to make it a fibre-to-fibre recycled material. Plus, once the new fabric is created, it may also be weaker in the use-phase, meaning materials might rip or deteriorate more easily.
This is why mechanically recycled materials are often used for a Downcycled purpose, like building insulation or carpet underlay - where spinning and weaving is not required. The alternative is to blend mechanically recycled materials with some virgin fibres (usually cotton or polyester) to give it strength.
I took my RMIT students on a trip to Upparel recently to sort the unwanted textiles from households around Australia. Most of the quality of items is so poor it must be downcycled into other uses.
However, add some rPET (recycled PET plastic) into the mix and you can get yourself 100% recycled content product. The catch? rPET is 99% coming from plastic bottles, NOT old clothes. We'd refer to this as Downcycling, because a higher quality plastic bottle has been transformed into the lower quality polyester fibre, which will never enter the once closed loop of plastic bottle recycling again due to loss of quality. Not really a solution if you ask me!
The other issue with making recycled textiles from old clothes? Decommissioning. Someone must manually asses and remove hardware (like buttons, zippers and labels) from the clothes, one by one. Making this an expensive and labour intensive exercise.
R/Denim – our new recycled content denim created in Guatemala from 80% recycled cotton waste + 20% virgin cotton.
While it's certainly possible to make apparel-appropriate fabrics from 100% industry waste fibre, it's just not viable for feedstock to be made entirely from post-consumer waste using the mechanical method. The quality is just too poor. But there are other options for feedstock other than wasted clothes which lend themselves for high quality fabrics and also won't require decommissioning. And this is where our beautiful new recycled denims come into the picture!
It's possible to collect the industrial or pre-consumer waste from textile mills and garment manufacturers, some of which may not require ragging at all, like spinning waste, which comes naturally out of the carding and combing processes.
The spinning waste is collected, cleaned and re-spun into new yarns, retaining strength (as the long staple fibres have never been chopped) and can be blended with other chopped pre-consumer materials like pure cotton denim offcuts from the garment cutting process. The additional benefit of this is removing the need for over-dyeing, replacing it with expert colour blending based on the offcuts available.
Especially good results are achieved with 100% cottons which are reflected in The New Denim Project range (they work exclusively in the fibre). The collaboration resulted in the creation of an 80% Recycled 20% Virgin cotton mix to create sturdy denim jackets, fitted skirts, structured shorts and sculptural bags. All of these are made without the use of water or dyes and that lovely light blue colour is achieved by blending the offcuts themselves. The result is an incredibly high quality finish and a denim suitable for a whole new life.
Cotton linter - before processing at the gin. The gin separates out the seed and other debris that is captured for oil and fertilisation.
Now let's quickly touch base on chemical recycling. This kind of recycling uses proprietary chemical mixtures to break the cotton fibres down to the molecular level, transforming, say, a piece of cotton fabric into a cellulose sludge, not dissimilar to viscose. This can be extruded and re-spun (like viscose) into new yarns and made into new fabrics without loosing strength or quality, though the final result will not be cotton anymore, and will simply be a regenerated cellulose.
Chemical recycling is being undertaken at pilot and semi-commercial scale in several locations around the globe. It may, however, be years before this is the norm for worn out garments due to complicated blends of materials, spandex/elastane contaminants and other similar hurdles to mechanical recycling - like decommissioning. It is also cost, labour, chemical and energy intensive so... not the be-all-end-all.
Before any garment is chemically recycled, it ideally should have gone through multiple stages of use, repair and maybe even remanufacture or mechanical recycling in order to make any of it worth the carbon emissions. Before all that, the designer should have considered and pre-engineered the entire lifecycle, each piece should be made from materials that are fit for purpose and then assembled for an optimal end of life that could even remove the need for decommissioning. Only then will we start to shape up something that resembles circular fashion.
Keen to get into the science of textile recycling? Check out our post, Can Clothes Really be Recycled? We learned a lot about this by visiting textile recyclers and learning first hand about the challenges ahead.
As a reminder. All A.BCH garments are created, at a minimum, to biodegrade safely. In addition to this, they are ALL created for simple mechanical and chemical cellulose recycling too. In summer, we'll be releasing our first 50% post consumer waste 50% organic cotton blend t-shirts and dresses. But for now we are proud to be launching our limited edition recycled denim collection in collaboration with The New Denim Project.