A constructive solution for old clothes

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Clothes are fast becoming a bane for the environment. One garbage truck full of textiles gets dumped into landfill or burned every second. Now researchers have come up with a way to turn discarded clothes into fire- and water-proof building materials. They presented this advance in the Journal of Cleaner Production.

In today’s age of fast-changing and cheap fashion, most clothes are thrown out after a few seasons. There are very few companies that will accept used clothes for recycling. Most garments, including those that are donated, end up in landfills.

This is a big environmental problem. Growing cotton takes a lot of energy and water as does producing synthetic blends. The textile industry is the second most polluting sector in the world, accounting for the 10 percent of the total world’s carbon emissions. And synthetic fabrics are one of the biggest sources of plastic pollution in the oceans. No effective recycling technologies for cotton fabrics or blends exists yet. 

So Veena Sahajwalla and her colleagues at the University of New South Wales in Australia came up with a different use for old textiles. They collected textiles from municipal and textile industry waste streams and removed solid bits like zippers and buttons. Next they passed the leftover mix of cotton, wool, polyester, nylon and other fabrics through a shredder and added a chemical to the resulting fluff to help the different fibers stick together. Finally, they compressed the fibers under heat to form solid panels.

The panels were moisture-resistant and as strong as wood-based particleboards so they could be used for load-bearing applications. Panels made with added fine sawdust were flame retardant. Plus, depending on their components, they had different textures and colors resembling wood, ceramic or stone. So they could be used for various interior finishes such as floor tiles, wall panels or ceilings.

The series of panels “constitute a non-toxic cost-effective low-carbon commercial alternative material for building applications,” the team writes in the paper. They are now trying to scale up the process.

Source: Claudia A. Echeverria et al. Cascading use of textile waste for the advancement of fibre reinforced composites for building applications. Journal of Cleaner Production, 2018.

Photo: Shutterstock

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