Recycling of fabric is a solution to fashion’s waste problem, namely the huge surplus of garments that end up in landfill sites or are burnt. What started as a threat to the environment, is now a serious problem. All clothing has a useful second life, and with more clothes recycle bins in the community, it provides a place of where to recycle fabric and also fabric scraps.
To make fashion production more circular, recycling of garments needs to be incorporated into the current production cycle. So let’s have a look at recycling clothing textiles to make new clothes and find different uses.
The Complicated World of Recycling of Clothes
Recycling of fabric has become a hot topic over the past few years. Fast fashion means the average cost of garments have decreased and it is quantity, rather than quality, that is produced. Low quality also means garments only last a few washes before being thrown away.
Fast fashion has major repercussions for the environment as this trend has resulted in a huge surplus of garments, that often ends up in the trash and then landfill. At the moment, 92 million tons of fabric are disposed of globally per year. Many of these textiles are made with petrochemical substances that come from non-renewable resources and are also made from materials that cannot be recycled.
Globally, only 12% of textiles used for clothing ends up being recycled. This is far less than the 66% of paper, 27% of glass and 29% of plastic PET bottles that are recycled in the USA. Most of the recycled polyester that is currently used in clothing, comes from recycled plastic bottles, rather than recycled clothing. The average American throws away 37kg of clothes and shoes every year, with only 13.6% being recycled.
Discover more about the recycling of clothes in this post on Recycling of Fabric – is it the future of Fashion?
How Recycling of Garments Works
The challenge of recycling of clothes depends largely on the fiber content of the garments, and their capability of being recycled or disposed of safely.
So much of the problem of recycling of fabric, is due to the complex combination of fibers that are used, which is often a blend of natural fibers, man made yarns, plastics and metal.
If you think of a pair of jeans which is made from cotton, but normally blended with elastane for stretch, and other components such as labels, zips, buttons, sewing thread and a range of dyes, that all need to be removed and recycled in different ways.
Dye that is added to yarn and fibers, needs to be removed before clothes can be recycled. Algalife is a company that is extracting natural coloring from different types of algae. Algae only needs sunlight and water to grow, and one benefit is that it is harvested in a closed system.
Algae fibers can also be used to create yarn and is used in fabric and footwear. Read more about the processes and benefits of this innovative fiber in this post on What is Seaweed Fabric? Fabric from the Ocean.
Processes for Recycling of Fabric
Sorting textiles into different material types is time-consuming and labour intensive. Fabric blends make it very difficult to do this mechanically. Recycling technologies are divided into chemical and mechanical techniques.
- The simplest way to recycle fabric, is through mechanical recycling. The fabrics or garments are mechanically deconstructed, in order to create reusable fibers, that can be used to make new yarn and fabric. With mechanical recycling, the fabrics are shredded and pulled to create fibers of shorter length, while the basic structure is not changed. Shorter length fibers produce lower quality fabrics, which is not suitable for making garments. These tend to be down cycled and is used to create other composite fiber materials, like thermal insulation, noise insulation and carpets for the building industry. Garments are shredded for fillers in car insulation, roofing felts, furniture padding, mattress stuffing and much more. Fabric blends are most suitable for mechanical recycling.
- The advantage of mechanical recycling is that no chemical processes are used.
- The disadvantage of mechanical recycling is that the fiber quality is not as good as virgin fibers.
- Chemical recycling techniques is very good for textiles and garments which has a large quantity of one type of fiber, and are used for fabrics with a high synthetic content, like polyester and nylon. Multiple processes and additional chemicals are required, which can make the resulting yarn and fabric costly. Using chemicals are not cheap and certainly not environmentally friendly.
Discover more about clothing that is produced from recycled plastic in this post on 6 Fashion Brands that Produce Clothing from Recycled Plastic.
New Techniques for Recycling of Garments
A technique has been developed by researchers at the City University of Hong Kong, to recycle fabric made from a blend of cotton and polyester, by feeding it to fungi. The fungi, Aspergillus niger, produces an enzyme which can break the cotton down into glucose, which can be converted into a syrup.
The pure polyester fibers that remain can be reused to make new filaments for garments. Research is currently being done to refine the process so that industrially produced cellulose enzymes can be used to make recycling of clothes on a larger scale, possible.
H&M is looking at using this recycling technique to reduce their textile waste and surplus of garments.
Austrian researchers have developed a technique where enzymes are used to turn old wool clothing into a material that can be used as an adhesive or resin.
Related post: 7 Flip Flop Sandals made of Recycled Materials.
Turning Waste into Textiles
Recycling needs to be incorporated into the fashion cycle to make it more circular. Renewcell, a Swedish startup company, is recovering cellulose fibers by recycling of garments, and making a new material called Circulose. Read more about this innovative textile that is being used by Levi’s for their iconic jeans, in this post on What is Cellulose Pulp and What is Circulose.
If you are wondering where to recycle fabric scraps, then you can look out for clothes recycle bins in your area. Thrift shops and charity shops is another possibility of where to recycle fabric.
Other types of waste, like milk and agricultural waste products, are also turned into textiles. Discover more about clothes made from milk in this post on What is Milk Fiber Yarn. Food waste is also used to make leather and vegan silk from fruit and read more about it in this post on 5 Innovative Textile Solutions for Vegans.
Even coffee is being recycled and incorporated in footwear and textiles. You can read more about the innovative use of this waste product in this post on Fabric made with Coffee Grounds.
Consumers also need to change their behavior if we want to reduce the negative impact that the fashion industry is having on the planet. Recycling of fabric and more sustainable fabrics are a key part of the solution of how to reduce the surplus of garments. Using recycled, rather than virgin materials, will drastically reduce our carbon footprint.
Brands Using Recycled Fibers
Many brands across the fashion industry are already incorporating recycled materials in their products. Adidas and Nike are amongst the tops brands that are using recycled plastic in their sneakers and footwear and you can read more about it in this post on the 8 Best Sneakers made of Recycled Plastic.
What are High street and fast fashion brands doing to reduce their carbon footprint? H&M is one of the fast fashion brands that are trying to slow down.
1. H&M Conscious
H&M, the Swedish low cost, fast fashion brand, is moving away from its fast fashion roots with launching a collection called Conscious. The collection is made of materials like organic cotton, Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) cotton, recycled polyester and recycled nylon. By using eco-friendly fabrics and more sustainable production methods, the company hopes to reduce its environmental footprint.
The Conscious sports line, consisting of leggings, tracksuits, leg warmers, sports bras and leotards, are made with eco friendly materials that are meant to look after the planet.
Customers can also recycle unwanted garments at H&M stores and get a discount for a future purchase. This is a great opportunity of where to recycle fabric and to use the clothes recycle bins in H&M stores.
As a whole, H&M has a goal to use only sustainably sourced materials by 2030.
The Loop Project was started with the idea of a circular economy and a commitment to sustainability. Photo courtesy of H&M
H&M have set up a “container” in a Stockholm store where customers can see the process of recycling textiles in an eight step process which does not use any chemicals or water. New fabrics and clothes will be made from the recycled fibers.
Wanner Label is a Swedish brand that was started in 2019. They produce unique and sustainable garments with materials that are sourced as second hand items. The garments are taken apart, cut open and sewn together to make a completely new product.
Their garments are one of a kind and they will also customize garments for you. Say for instance you have a lovely sarong that you do not wear, they will refashion it for you according to your wishes.
If you are wondering where to recycle fabric scraps, you can contact them if you have fabric or clothing that you want to get rid of, and they will take it. They will give you a discount voucher that you can use on a purchase from them.
The designer and founder of Wanner Label is Josefin Wanner and all the garments are produced in a studio in Leeds, UK.
Filippa K is a Swedish fashion brand that was started in 1993. Their framework is circular fashion through reducing, repairing, reusing and recycling. They are using a locally sourced raw material, wool, and thereby their carbon footprint is significantly reduced.
Wool is a natural organic fiber and more than a thousand tonnes of wool is produced by Swedish sheep every year, and most of it goes to waste. Filippa K produce a full range of men and women’s clothing, with coats, trench coats and parka jackets made in wool and synthetic fibers, with lining of 100% recycled polyester.
They also make trench coats in a mix of sustainable viscose, sourced from Swedish trees, line and cotton. Recycled plastic bottles are used for the recycled polyester that they use in their garments.
Aeon Row is an American start-up brand, that strives to close the loop on fashion. They are based in Boston with a factory in Los Angeles. All their clothing is made from 100% recycled yarn. Aeon Row produces simple, essential clothing for women, using revived and repurposed materials.
Their mission is to keep clothing out of landfill and create less waste, so that it is possible to have a wardrobe with more style and less waste, and to reduce the surplus of garments.
The fabric is made entirely from recycled materials, with half the fibers derived from old cotton clothing and the other half from recycled plastic bottles. When it comes to cotton, it eliminates the dirty process of growing and harvesting conventional cotton. Recycled polyester is derived from plastic bottles and is used for strengthening the cotton.
Aeon Row offers you a solution of where to recycle fabric, in that you can send in your old Aeon Row clothes to be recycled, and they offer you 15% discount on your next purchase. They then incorporate that material to produce their clothing. Around forty percent of customers do return clothing to be recycled.
If the item that is sent in for recycling is made from fibers that are easy to recycle, like cotton, it will be sent to Recovertex to make new fabric from it. Garments that are returned that cannot be recycled into new fabric, are given to a donation center. Used clothes that are sent back for recycling, is returned in the same box that it was originally shipped in, and the box is used over and over again.
Currently the line is quite small and it is limited to a small range for women, but they are planning on extending it into a men’s range as well.
The Future of Recycling of Clothes
Fibers, textiles and garments will need to be designed in such a way that it will be easier to recycle them, in the hope of making our clothes more sustainable, and to reduce the surplus of garments that are currently being dumped. It is possible to turn fashion waste into fashion fabric.
If you have any comments or experience of where to recycle fabric scraps, or know where to find clothes recycle bins, then please leave your suggestions below and I will get back to you.