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Scientists may have found a way to make recycling modern fabrics a reality

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Scientists may have found a way to make recycling modern fabrics a reality

Blended fabrics are nearly impossible to recycle. Chemists now report a way to separate fabric blends into reusable components in just 15 minutes.
July 11, 2024

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The clothing industry is an unfolding environmental disaster. The world dumps 92 million tons of textiles every year, most of which ends up in landfills or incinerators. Less than 0.5% is recycled.

A new process could make recycling modern fabrics a reality. The method, reported in the journal Science Advances, can break down any blend of cotton, polyester, nylon and spandex into building block molecules that can be reused for fabrics or to make products like electronics and tires. It uses microwaves and chemicals, and only takes 15 minutes.

It takes a lot of water and land to make textiles, and the sector is one of the biggest sources of water degradation and land use. Recycling could be a part of the solution to this footprint. But the issue is that today’s textiles often consist of a mix of natural and synthetic fibers. Blending cotton with spandex, polyester or nylon creates clothes with the perfect mix of comfort and performance. But it also makes recycling textiles very difficult.

 

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For starters, sorting these fabrics is expensive. And recycling mixed fibers is challenging from a chemical perspective. The most commonly used recycling method today involves shredding the materials. The method is simple and cheap. “Yet, it cannot handle multifiber textiles, additives, or colorants,” researchers from the University of Delaware write in the paper. It also shortens fiber length so the recycled material is used in lower-value products such as insulation and mattress stuffing.”

The team of chemists and biomolecular engineers used a chemical to break up the large chains of molecules found in polyester. They used microwave energy and a catalyst to speed things up.

In tests with 100% polyester and 50/50 polyester-cotton blend fabrics, the process converted 90% of the polyester into a molecule that can be recycled into polyester. The cotton stayed intact, so in the blended fabrics it was possible to break down the polyester and recover the cotton.

The method worked with other blends including cotton, polyester, nylon or spandex. Spandex broke down into a useful molecule and nylon turned into powders that could be recovered. “Further refinement of this process holds the potential to achieve a global textile circularity rate of 88%,” the researchers write.

Source: Erha Andini et al. Chemical recycling of mixed textile waste. Sci. Adv. 2024.

Image by Andrej Lišakov/Unsplash.com

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