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Cotton and Cellulose Fiber Recycling Could Ramp Up in 2019 Thanks to This New Tech

A research project at Washington State University (WSU) involving scientists and new technology aims to help keep millions of tons of cotton and cellulose waste out of landfills by spinning it into new fibers for apparel.

Hang Liu, assistant professor in WSU’s Department of Apparel, Merchandising, Design and Textiles, and the project’s research lead furthered her efforts this fall with a new grant, “Environmentally Friendly Cotton/Cellulose Waste Recycling.” Liu is partnering with Ting Chi, associate professor in the department, and Jinwen Zhang, professor in the WSU’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, on the project.

With $120,000 in funding, $60,000 from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust and $60,000 from the WSU Office of Commercialization, the team set up a large, laboratory-scale device called a wet spinning machine that produces new fibers from cotton waste textiles. Liu said she’ll use it to make fabric samples with commercial potential, helping the fabric industry learn how to use and develop regenerated fiber products.

“This technology helps close the loop, turning waste into high-quality products in an environmentally friendly way,” Liu said. “Given the tremendous amount of cotton waste available for free or at a very low cost, that savings is of big interest to the industry. My project is an important milestone that could strengthen industry collaboration and show the commercial and environmental value of regenerating waste fibers.”

Fiber consumption is on the rise as a growing world population demands textiles for clothing, homes and industries. And at the same time, the recycling rate of textile waste is extremely low–less than 1 percent of clothing gets recycled into fibers for new clothing, representing a loss of more than $100 billion worth of materials each year.

“More than 13 million tons of textiles go to waste every year in the United States,” Liu said. “In Washington’s King County alone, 40,000 tons of textile waste that ended up in landfills in 2015.”

Adding to that, she said, “the textile industry is eager to put that waste back into use,” noting that manufacturers are actively seeking sustainable practices that keep materials in use as long as possible and create new value.

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