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Finnish Researchers Recycle Waste Cotton Into New Fibers

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Textiles in Helsinki Metropolitan Area Reuse Centre Ltd
Kanye West exposed his lack of textile knowledge on a recent episode of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” when he agonized that 3-D printing could ruin the fashion industry.

What the aspiring designer didn’t realize is that natural fibers cannot be reproduced by a printer—and with Americans sending 10.5 million tons of clothing to landfills each year, an alternative manufacturing option that not only reduces the monetary and environmental cost of raw materials but also cuts down on waste could be exactly what the industry needs.

That’s what prompted VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland to develop a way of spinning old cotton clothing into new fibers.

Currently, cotton isn’t easy to recycle, because used clothes have to be shredded in order to be turned back into raw materials. That process shortens the staple length and thus the quality of the fibers, which means that apparel manufacturers are less likely to use it in their garments.

VTT’s latest advancement could solve this problem: Thanks to a cellulose dissolution technique, cotton that’s not deemed suitable for reuse can be broken down into a solution that’s then turned into a new fiber to be used for thread, resulting in a knitted fabric made entirely from recycled materials.

In addition to cutting down on waste, VTT said the technique uses 70 percent less water than virgin cotton, and reduces the carbon footprint by up to 50 percent.

Now, a group of likeminded Finnish organizations have launched a project, dubbed The Circular Economy of Textiles (TEKI), to test the practice at all stages of the value chain.

The pilot phase kicked off in May, when Helsinki Metropolitan Reuse Centre Ltd. began collecting cotton textiles thrown away by consumers (that could not be reused as clothing or as material for recycled products) to be crushed and ground before being sent to VTT.

Once the center has turned the material into a cellulose carbamate solution, it will be transferred to textile recycling and manufacturing company Pure Waste, which will turn the fibers into fabric. Following that, Finnish fast-fashion retailer Seppälä will create a clothing line to be sold in its stores in Spring ’16.

“The wet-spinning phase of the project is due to begin in a month’s time in a factory in Valkeakoski that has not been in use for a couple of years,” explained VTT’s senior scientist Pirjo Heikkila, who is responsible for coordinating the project. “This is the first time that cellulose solution made from recycled materials is being wet-spun on an industrial scale.”

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