What Are Recycled Fabrics?
Clothing and the fabrics used to make clothes are a central part of the everyday life of humans.
Beyond the practicalities of covering our bodies and keeping us warm, clothing also enables us to express our personality and culture.
The problem is that we produce far too much of it, and we use many resources to do it.
At the same time, we create an enormous amount of waste going about our day-to-day lives.
According to the EPA, the average Australian produces approx. 4.9 pounds of trash every day, and this is increasing. It’s a similar story in other countries too.
What if we could produce clothes using these waste products? Sure it’s not going to solve our issues with fast fashion and having too many clothes, but it keeps these waste materials, often plastics, in circulation, saving them from landfills and reducing virgin resources.
Not a perfect circular model but a start at least. The more material we can repurpose and keep in use, the better for us and the earth.
Would you be surprised to know many companies are leading the way in using recycled fabrics and materials in clothing?
Many recycled fabrics are made from our trash. There are fabrics made using discarded water bottles, fishing nets, and even food waste.
Not to mention the reprocessing of cotton and other natural fibers.
What Are Recycled Fabrics?
Textiles made of natural or synthetic fibres are not just used for clothes but also used in homes, hospitals, workplaces, vehicles, in the form of cleaning materials, as leisure equipment, or protective wear and so on.
If these textiles are sorted, graded and reused again to make fabrics for different end uses it is called recycled fabric.
Synthetic fibres i.e. man-made fibres like Polyester and Nylon are the most used and popular in the world.
Polyester fibre demand in the world is much higher than any other natural or man made fibres since 2002 and it will continue to grow at a significantly faster rate as calculated by England-based PCI Fibres in its forecast out to 2030.
Textiles made of regular polyester fibre are not environment friendly as the production of fabric involves huge quantities of water, chemicals and use of fossil fuels.
The raw materials as well the byproducts are toxic, pollute water and air and cause several health issues.
Hence companies have found ways to create polyester out of recycled plastic bottles or even recycled polyester fabric.
Similarly great progress has also been made to recycle other synthetic fibres types like nylon and spandex to make recycled fabrics to prevent fabric going to waste/landfill.
Use of recycled fabrics has significant importance as it provides both environmental and economic benefits.
There are several different types of recycled fabrics, and they are made in quite different ways.
The two main types are:
- Textiles made from recycled fabric or clothing
- Fibers and fabric created from other waste materials like plastic water bottles or food waste.
What Are They Made From? and What Variation Do Recycled Fabrics Come With?
We consider recycled polyester fabrics as an example to know more about the process and methods used for recycling.
Recycled polyester fabric uses PET (polyethylene terephthalate) as raw material and this comes from recycled plastic bottles which go to landfill.
The Recycled polyester uses 33-53% less energy than regular polyester and it can be continuously recycled.
Recycled polyester also doesn’t require huge land to grow a crop or use gallons of water like cotton for its production.
Recycled polyester fabrics can also come from used polyester fabrics where the recycling process starts by cutting the polyester garments into small pieces.
The shredded fabric is then granulated and turned into polyester chips. The chips are melted and spun into new filament fibers used to make new polyester fabrics.
The source of RPET (recycled polyethylene terephthalate) is divided into “post-consumer” RPET and “post-industrial RPET''.
A small percentage for the source of RPET can also come from the by-product from fiber and yarn manufacturers supplying to garment making or retail industry.
The post-consumer RPET comes from used bottles by people; post-industrial RPET is from unused packaging in manufacturing plants or by products of manufacturing.
What’s the Production Process?
There are two types of production process for RPET:
Mechanical Recycling or Chemical Recycling
Mechanical recycling is often the most used process. To explain in simple terms the process is done by melting the plastic and re-extruding it to make yarns.
For mechanical recycling only thermoplastic materials are of interest, i.e. polymeric materials that may be re-melted and re-processed into products.
Thermoplastics, including PET, PE and PP all have high potential to be mechanically recycled.
Also it is important to know that the mechanical recycling of plastics waste is generally only feasible for homogeneous, single polymer streams or for defined mixtures of polymers that can be effectively separated into the individual polymers.
- The collected PET bottles used for drinks packaging are sorted, sterilized, dried and crushed into smaller fragments called pellets or chips.
- The fragments are heated and passed through a spinneret to form strings of yarn.
- The yard is wound up in spools.
- The yarn would be processed and textured just like virgin polyester and, dyed then woven or knitted into polyester fabric.
Chemical recycling, creates a new plastic, with retaining the same quality as original though this process isn’t used as much as mechanical process because this process is very expensive.
It is based on chemical breakdown of polyester into monomers, the building blocks of polymers.
The polymer feedstock is then repolymerized to produce recycled material that is purer and is of a more consistent quality than produced by mechanical method.
But chemical recycling is more energy intensive to produce.
What Are the Environmental Benefits for Recycled Fabrics?
Using rPET to make recycled fabrics helps tremendously in reducing the landfill waste, pollution and energy thus making the environment eco-friendly.
With the re-use of recycled fabrics in manufacturing processes or in consumption cycles, there is a strong decrease of CO2 emissions compared to the production of virgin materials.
Another benefit is that the garments created from recycled polyester can be recycled again and again with very less or no degradation of quality, thus allowing to minimise wastage.
Non biodegradability of polyester is actually a good thing in comparison to biodegradable fibres.
Natural fibers like cotton and wool cannot be reused in the same way as polyester and even though they eventually break down they can still take years for decomposition.
Wool which decomposes also produces methane which contributes to global warming which is not the case with recycled polyester fabrics.
Use of recycled fabrics reduces pressure on virgin resources and as well as oil and other chemicals employed to produce synthetic fibres.
Where Can We Find Them?
Polyester production is energy-intensive and relies on a finite, non-renewable natural resource that we utilise in many other ways as part of everyday life for energy, fuel, and plastics production.
65-70 percent of global polyester production is used for textiles, of which more than 65 percent is produced in China.
Apart from China there’s a lot of manufacturers of rPET in India and America. The majority of the remaining 25-30 percent is used in the manufacture of PET beverage bottles.”
Vivify textiles offers one of the best quality of recycled fabrics in the market today.
They offer various types of fabrics, and provide quality service to its customers worldwide.
What Are the Environmental Benefits of Recycled Fabrics?
Recycled fabrics play an important role in helping the fashion industry shift to a more circular model.
Choosing recycled fabrics over virgin fabrics helps keep materials in circulation as long as possible, even if those materials did not start as fabric.
It has also been shown that making fabrics from recycled materials uses less energy than using virgin materials.
- Less Energy required
- Reduce the need for virgin materials
- Supports the Circular Economy
- Reduces Landfill
Textile recycling is one of the oldest and most established recycling industries in the world, yet, few people understand the industry and its myriad players.
Textiles have been recycled since the eighteenth century when the Napoleonic War caused virgin wool shortages and required that wool fibers be guaranteed into new yarns.
Even though the textile industry has been utilizing used fibers for at least 150 years, the markets for recycled textile fiber continue to evolve.
The textile recycling process functions as a multi-faceted system that occurs along a pipeline of inter-related constituents that not only turns pre-and post-consumer waste back into fiber, but also is extracting new fiber from domestic waste.
Specifically, PET (polyethylene terephthalate), the chemical substance from which some polyester is made, is reclaimed from plastic soda bottles.
Although recycling is politically correct and ecologically friendly, 4-6 percent of landfills are made up of recyclable textile products since discarded clothing and textile waste fail to reach the recycling pipeline, primarily because consumers do not understand the recycling process.
The Council for Textile Recycling reports that the per capita consumption of fiber in the United States is 67.9 pounds with over 40 pounds (59 percent) per capita being discarded per year.
Of countries where statistics are available, the United Kingdom deposits the highest percentages (90 percent) of textile waste to the landfill, compared to 65 percent from Germany, 30 percent from Denmark, and 20 percent from Switzerland.
A Global Problem
Western consumption patterns encourage excessiveness that leads to a negative impact on global sustainability.
By implementing textile recycling, global sustainability increases. Two important issues regarding the global nature of textile recycling include: (1) textile waste is created
and disposed of on a global scale, and (2) much of the used-clothing market is located in developing countries where annual wages are sometimes less than the cost of one outfit in the United States.
For many people in developing countries, it is necessary to be able to receive used clothing surplus from industrialized nations. Simpson (1996) reports that nearly 34,000 tons of used clothing is sent to Africa annually.
Because not all countries allow the importation of used clothing, black markets have risen as goods move across borders to meet market demands.
The three primary areas for processing of reclaimed apparel are Prato, Italy; Dewsbury, United Kingdom; and, more recently, India.
These processing centers obtain used apparel from all over the world, sort items based on color and fiber content, mechanically reduce the apparel back to a fiber state, then reprocess into new yarns and end products.
Recycled Fabric from Clothing
Clothes are complicated to recycle. The first stage is to exclude any clothing that can be reused.
These clothes are often exported to third-world countries.
To properly recycle clothing, different fiber types need to be separated into different types of materials.
Textiles must first be sorted by usage (clothing vs. linens), then by fabric type (synthetic vs. natural), and then by color. This can be very, very labor-intensive and also very expensive.
Once separated, the textiles are then mechanically shredded, resulting in a fiber that can then be made into new fabrics.
The yarn is cleaned and sometimes mixed with other fibers, and then it is respun ready to be woven or knitted into a new item.
A lot of textiles that are recycled in this manner are, in fact, downcycled; they are used as rags before they even get processed.
About 35% of donated clothes in the European Union are turned into industrial rags. The fibers are also used for stuffing furniture, insulation, or carpets.
If the textiles are polyester-based, they may be shredded, granulated, and made into polyester chips to be used to create new fibers.
Recycled Fabric Made from Other Waste Materials
Recycled fabrics can also be made from other waste materials.
These materials are put through various different processes that may include collecting, sorting, washing, and drying, followed by processing and manufacturing.
The fabrics can then be used to create new clothing or other textile products.
One of the most common is to use recycled plastic bottles.
Repreve is a manufacturer of recycled polyester made from discarded plastic bottles based in the U.S.A.
Many brands use this fabric in place of virgin polyester in their products.
Another great example is a company called Aquafil, which makes a fabric called Econyl from recycled Nylon.
The Process of Recycling Textiles
The range of markets for used textile fiber varies from vintage collectibles; to used clothing exported to less developed countries, to industrial uses.
Traditional sources of textile waste come from three different sources:
- fiber, yarn, and fabric processing
- sewn products manufacture
- discard at the end of its useful life
Textile and cutting wastes at the manufacturing level are considered pre-consumer waste and are easier to recycle because the fibers, dyes, and finishes are known and in like-new condition.
Post-consumer waste is of uncertain origin and has a wide variance in quality and condition, making it more difficult to recycle.
Ongoing research and development focuses on the problem of processing used, mixed fibers.
Will Recycled Fabrics Fix Fast Fashion?
Although there are great benefits to using recycled fabrics, they are not a solution to the overconsumption associated with fast fashion.
The best thing we can all do to stifle the excesses of fast fashion is to stop buying more clothes. Read Reduce Reuse Recycle, Ways to get you thinking.
Other Ways to Reduce Your Impact
Here are some great suggestions on how to reduce your impact when it comes to your wardrobe.
Shop Your Wardrobe:
Do your best to repurpose the items in your current wardrobe instead of buying new ones.
Support Sustainable Clothing Brands:
Rather than buying more low-quality clothes for less, opt for well-made, high-quality, sustainable clothes that will last you several years to come.
Vintage clothing has become a huge trend lately.
By buying pre-owned vintage clothing, you will not only be celebrating past fashions but also keep up with the cyclic trends.
Another great benefit of vintage clothing is the price!
Some Instagram vintage shops are leading the way so that you can sort out some great vintage treasures from them.
You might even find a brick-and-mortar vintage store in your area. Don’t compromise on principles, and don’t compromise on style!
Follow the 30-Wears Rule:
A term coined by Livia Firth, founder of Eco-Age, the 30-Wears rule can help you make better purchase decisions.
Before you buy an article of clothing, ask yourself, “Will I wear this at least thirty times?”
If the answer is Yes, go ahead and buy it. If the answer is No, don’t buy it!
Buying clothes that you will wear only once or twice is a waste of money, and the clothes will most probably end up in the trash.
Recycle Your Clothes:
There are many options for recycling the clothes you no longer need. You can find out more in our article on Clothes Recycling: How to Recycle Clothes Sustainably.
There are so many amazing brands that are now choosing to become more sustainable who need our support financially to grow, increase their efforts, influence other brands, and impact the world of fashion.
When buying from a brand, consider what materials they use in their products. If they are using recycled fabrics, that is a great step forward.