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Advancing Post-Consumer Textile Recycling (Emerging Technologies Shaping Sustainable Fashion)

BULETIN TEKSTIL.COM/ Jakarta – In an effort to address the environmental impact of the fashion industry, there is a growing adoption of sophisticated recycling technologies that are transforming the process of recycling post-consumer textiles. By revealing the potential of closed-loop systems in the fashion industry, these developments are crucial in guiding the sector toward a more sustainable future.

Urgent demands are being made for sustainable technologies in the textile industry due to its substantial environmental impacts. As a result, a novel cohort of enterprises has emerged, devising chemical recycling methodologies to tackle the issue of waste originating from synthetic materials like polyester and nylon, as well as primary fibers like cellulose found in cotton.

Some of the largest textile brands in the world have maintained the exclusivity of their products for years by burning unsold inventory, a procedure that is not only financially but also environmentally costly. Nevertheless, a shift is underway, aided in part by more stringent waste regulations within the European Union and a growing public consciousness regarding recycling and sustainability concerns. The legislation mandates that manufacturers transition from incinerating unsold garments in a fire to recycling in a manner that is more ecologically sustainable, mirroring the recycling obligations set for packaging materials.

An estimated 92 million tons of textile waste are produced annually on a global scale. Furthermore, in the production of 80 to 100 billion new garments, 87 percent of the fibers and materials used in apparel manufacturing are disposed of in landfills or incinerators (TPA). Reportedly, only 20% of textile refuse is collected for recycling, and an even smaller fraction, 1%, is repurposed in the production of new garments.

A significant barrier to the promotion of a circular economy and the recycling of post-consumer textile waste is the substandard quality of recycled materials. Sustainability professionals frequently identify Post-Consumer Recycled (PCR) content as a crucial area requiring enhancement, as it is indispensable for the reduction of waste volumes. Therefore, enhancing fiber processing and recycling technology is a crucial component in enhancing the quality of these post-consumer products.

There is a substantial distinction between pre-consumer and post-consumer refuse. Pre-consumer waste, which comprises leftovers and remnants, is generated throughout the manufacturing phase. Conversely, post-consumer waste comprises apparel that has been discarded by consumers due to factors such as damage, obsolescence, or desirability. The accelerated development of fashion patterns and consumer demands is contributing to the escalating issue of textile waste, which poses a significant threat to the welfare of future generations. Landfills are progressively overrun with mountains of discarded apparel, which underscores the critical nature of developing sophisticated recycling technologies within the textile sector.

Which technologies are applicable to textile post-consumer recycling?

Post-consumer textile waste presents distinctive obstacles due to the fact that recently manufactured textiles frequently near the conclusion of their practical lifespan briefly after being introduced to the market. The main contributors to textile waste production are China (20 million tonnes) and the United States (17 million tonnes), respectively (2). Around 20 percent of textiles are selected for recycling or reuse on a global scale.

Despite its considerable size, the second-hand apparel market is so inundated that only a minute proportion of the textiles that are collected are sold. The remainder, considered non-functional, is either burnt, recycled, or disposed of in a landfill.

Without blending new fibers, businesses can now produce mechanically recycled natural fibers of comparable quality to virgin materials, thanks to technological advancements. As an illustration, Resilk4 is a novel fiber composed exclusively of recycled silk. Resilk endeavors to pay homage to the inherent worth of silk fabric and the labor that goes into its production, beginning with the nurturing of mulberries and silkworms and concluding with the thread and textile weaving process.

Chemical recycling encompasses the depolymerization process, which decomposes substances into their elemental components, thereby enabling the production of fresh filaments that are subsequently transformed into fabric. Chemically recycled fiber maintains its quality even after undergoing multiple cycles of recycling, comparable to that of virgin fiber.

Chemical recycling techniques for synthetic materials have developed in recent years. Depolymerization, which reduces plastic polymers to monomer units for the manufacture of new plastic products, is one such process. Additionally, technologies such as pyrolysis and gasification have gained traction. Processes such as hydrolysis, alcoholysis and aminolysis are used to chemically recycle PET textiles.

Current technological advances allow the chemical recycling of natural fibers beyond the experimental stages in the laboratory. The transformation of cotton into viscose is a prime example of this recycling process, using methods similar to those used to convert wood pulp into viscose, breaking down pure cotton fabric into reformable paper pulp.

Technologies That Can Be Used for Post-Consumer Recycling of Textiles

Recycling textile materials, like plastics, presents quite a challenge. The diversity of materials, construction and dyes used complicates the post-production recycling process.

In addition, as fashion-related items, they frequently undergo style and design changes and are equipped with various accessories, which further complicates their automatic recycling.

Below is an overview of some of the technologies that facilitate Post-Consumer Recycling for textiles:

Cutting, Chopping, and Carding:

Mechanical processes such as cutting, shredding, and carding are used to recycle post-consumer textile waste. These methods break down fabric into fibers that can be reused to make new products. The resulting fibers can be spun into yarn suitable for knitwear, non-woven fabrics, and woven textiles. This approach is mainly applied in the recycling of home insulation and carpet padding.

Grouping:

Grouping involves applying many small fiber particles, known as flock, to a surface. The term may also refer to materials primarily used for flocking surfaces, or to textures produced by the flocking process. An item may be flocked to increase its value or to give it a certain tactile quality.

Mechanical Recycling:

Ongoing technological advances have enabled factories to produce textiles from natural fibers with qualities almost indistinguishable from virgin materials through mechanical recycling, without the need to add virgin content. Mechanical recycling converts waste into secondary raw materials without changing its chemical structure. The main mechanical recycling techniques for textiles include shredding fabric and melting and extruding synthetic fibers such as polyester.

Fiber sorting:

Fiber sorting is a technology that automatically sorts large volumes of used textiles based on their material composition. The aim is to enable these used textiles to be recycled back into raw materials for the production of new clothing. Fibersort categorizes non-reusable and discardable clothing based on material and color. This system classifies unusable textile items into material classes that are ready for recycling. High-value recycling processes play an integral role in the circular economy, turning low-value waste into new, high-value textiles. Fibersort stands as a critical technology in enabling textile resources to re-enter the supply chain on a cyclical basis.

Final Note

Despite challenges hampering the recycling process, such as inefficient waste collection and sorting systems, as well as declining demand for recyclable materials due to competitive market prices for raw materials, new recycling innovations are still making progress. Additionally, financial barriers are being overcome, facilitating the commercial expansion of this technology.

It should be noted, however, that not all textiles can be recycled via enzymatic hydrolysis, but significant results have been achieved at low temperatures. The incorporation of current technologies, such as the Internet of Things (IoT), to facilitate effective sorting and identification of textile waste, is also gaining prominence. Perhaps the time has come to take meaningful steps to achieve sustainability in fashion, thereby getting closer to a truly circular economy.

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