Americans donate or recycle an average of 12 pounds of apparel, footwear and household textiles annually—but most of those secondhand fibers won’t get a second life as new clothing. The reason: Blended yarns are difficult to separate and not all fibers can be reused.
To that end, the recovery rate for used textiles in 2012 was 15.7%, or 2.3 million tons, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and castoff clothing accounts for nearly 5 percent of all landfill space.
Now, Australian scientists claim they’ve found a way to separate polyester-cotton blends into their individual components, and are working on spinning the recovered cotton into new cellulosic materials and the polyester into plastic bottles or fibers.
Using an ionic liquid (a salt in a liquid state), researchers at Deakin University’s Institute for Frontier Materials have developed an environmentally-friendly process with a 99.5% success rate that selectively dissolves the cotton component without modifying the polyester, and the properties of both recovered fibers have shown no material differences.
As consumers increasingly demand sustainable clothing, regenerated cellulose such as viscose, rayon and lyocell—fibers made from plant-based materials, like wood pulp—have grown in popularity. A recent report by Transparency Market Research predicts the market will increase at a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 9.8% between 2012 and 2018, with clothing expected to account for more than half of cellulose production worldwide. But higher costs associated with greater environment-based regulatory measures, as well as forestry policies and fluctuating prices of wood pulp, threaten to impede that growth.
Deakin University’s scientific breakthrough, however, could provide an eco-friendly and cost-competitive solution. The research team has said they plan to apply the method to other blended fibers.