Cotton is the world’s most produced natural fiber and takes a huge amount of energy and water to make. It’s one of the thirstiest plants using 20,000 liters of water to produce 1 kg of cotton. That’s just enough to make one t-shirt and one pair of jeans.
It is estimated that cotton has reached its maximum production per year. It is also estimated that there will be a global shortage of cellulose-based fibers of 5 million tons by the year 2020 due to the growing demand. Constantly producing new cotton is incredibly unsustainable, so something has got to give.
It’s not just the production of the fiber that’s unsustainable; millions of tons of cotton end up in landfill every year in the form of scraps, old stock, worn out clothing, and so on. Granted, people are becoming more aware of where their clothing goes at the end of its life and making better choices about how they get rid of it, but it isn’t enough.
Recycling cotton would diminish waste and reduce the strain that the fashion industry puts on resources, including not just cotton but water, land, pesticides and chemicals as well. It would also solve availability issues as more and more land is needed to feed the world’s growing population.
It had been widely thought for many years that 100% recycled cotton was near impossible. The natural filaments are difficult to separate and use again, and, unlike polyester, it can’t just be melted down and reformed in the same way. All the attempts produced textiles of low quality that was fragile, rough, not comfortable or durable enough for repeated wear and therefore difficult to use commercially. One way of getting around this was to mix the recycled cotton content with other synthetic fibers, better suited for reuse. Unfortunately once these fibers have been blended, it makes the process of a second recycle near to impossible.
Blending Recycled Cotton
Known for their sustainable textile innovations, Lenzing launched a product that blended two cellulosic fibers: their groundbreaking wood-based fiber, Tencel, and cotton waste. This was a huge development in the commercial applications of recycled cotton. Not only did it give products made from recycled content commercial viability, but this new Tencel fiber is strong enough to be recycled directly into new fashions after the consumer is done with it too.
Known as the “Next Generation Tencel Fiber”, it was heralded as the most eco-friendly fiber on the planet – until there was a breakthrough in producing 100% recycled fibers.
100% Recycled Cotton
One step ahead of Lenzing’s developments, are the technological advancements that are now allowing textiles to be made of 100% recycled cotton. Evrnu and re:newcell are two such companies making virgin cotton and cotton waste a thing of the past. With the use of impressive technologies, they have each separately devised a process through which discarded apparel can be recycled and reborn into brand new textiles.
The Evrnu process starts by using a special solvent to break the old cotton down into a pulp. Then the pulp is extruded using a fine filter. According to Element 8, the resulting textile is smooth to the touch, similar to silk, yet is even stronger than virgin cotton. This makes it ideal for consumers who want both comfort and durability.
Similarly, Sweden-based re:newcell also uses a process by which old garments, primarily jeans and t-shirts, are transformed into a usable pulp. One difference, however, is that they don’t just recycle cotton fibers, they recycle any cellulose fiber.
In both cases this type of dissolving pulp is not a new development. Wood has long been dissolved and used to create fibers, but the raw materials have always been harvested from virgin sources.
Evrnu and re:newcell have changed this, making it possible to create recycled fibers that meet the high demands of clothing producers.
Partnering For Greater Impact
Both Evrnu and re:newcell have partnered with some big names in order to improve their technologies and expand their impact. Re:newcell has partnered with other Swedish companies like SKS Textile, and is working towards using the new recycled cotton to produce uniforms for healthcare workers. Meanwhile, Evrnu has partnered with Levi’s to create recycled denim on a mass scale.
The Long Haul
What’s most impressive is this recycled cotton’s end-of-life. Most recycled textiles inevitably find their way into landfill. Though well-intentioned, this traditional method merely extends the timeline without actually reducing the amount of pollution released into the environment.
With great foresight, Evrnu and re:newcell have created textiles that can be broken down and recycled again and again, creating a never-ending source of fabric without the need to grow more cotton or clear-cut more land.
Today, only a small amount of cellulosic textiles are reused and an even smaller amount recycled. If 1kg of clothing were to be reused instead of produced from virgin sources, it would save 3.6kg carbon dioxide, 6000 litres of water, 0.3 kg of fertilising chemicals and 0.2kg of insecticides.
This new technology is a long-term solution that both producers should be proud of. Each company has taken fresh technology and used it to begin a revolution in the way cotton is produced and conceptualized in the fashion industry.
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