The world has fashion problem. The U.S. alone sends about 21 billion pounds of textile waste to landfills every year, with comparable – and growing – numbers being tied to other similarly-situated nations. But a new way of recycling could serve to repurpose some of the world’s unwanted textiles from polluting the environment to creating everything from new clothing to synthetic joints for replacement surgeries.
Textile waste consumes nearly 5 percent of the world’s landfill space, according to the World Wear Project, with 20 percent of all freshwater pollution a result of textile treatment and dyeing. Growing cotton requires the use of harmful pesticides and fertilizers, and textile-manufacturing plants are known to release hazardous waste into surrounding areas, including water sources, which are also negatively impacted by the dyeing process.
Still yet, despite the energy and resources used in the production process, not all cotton produced makes it into our clothes. Around 23.6 million tons of cotton is produced each year, but the weight of stems, leaves and lint from the plant amounts to between 18 and 65 percent of each bale of cotton.
From what is left, even more cotton fiber is lost in the process of spinning cotton buds into yarn because some fibers break during spinning. Some of this raw material waste can be used to make products such as soaps, animal feed or cotton seed oil, but the rest is thrown away.
To counter the impacts of the fashion industry and the waste associated with it, circular fashion design processes – or those founded upon notions of high longevity, resource efficiency, non-toxicity, biodegradability, recyclability and ethical manufacturing and consumption – are proving increasingly popular in terms of discussion and practice.
Since cotton fibers are almost purely comprised of cellulose, they can be turned into other cellulose-based products. A team at Deakin University’s Institute for Frontier Materials in Victoria, Australia has been working on designing materials and processes for a circular economy, including a solution for recycling textiles that involves dissolving cotton and regenerating it into brand-new cellulose – a complex, strong carbohydrate with many industrial uses.
The regenerated cellulose can be used to create new textiles, while the cotton fabrics may also be shredded and milled into colored powders to dye new clothes, thereby, helping to revolutionize the textile dyeing process, which is in need of new ways to save water, reduce pollutants, save energy and protect human health.
Deakin University’s team is experimenting with uses of the regenerated cellulose outside of the fashion industry, and is making strides with applications in the medical field, including in the production of biomedical applications, such as drug delivery and tissue engineering. Still yet, the aerogels – a low density material that is created when cotton textiles are dissolved and the remains are regenerated – can be molded into a structure almost identical to cartilage in the joints of the body, thereby, enabling it to become the ideal shape to replace damaged knee cartilage in arthritic patients, for example.
The synthetic joint replacements have not yet been used in patients, as the project is now entering pilot-scale trials and look to be at commercial scale within 3 to 5 years with industry support, but the school’s research and application is already being hailed as ground-breaking not just for the fight against textile waste but from a medical perspective, as well.
Catriona Vi Nguyen-Robertson is a PhD Candidate at the University of Melbourne . Nolene Byrne is an Associate Professor at Deakin University.