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Researchers Investigate New Life for Post-Consumer Cotton

A research collaboration between Cotton Incorporated and North Carolina State University (NCSU) addresses the issue of the tons of discarded clothing that end up in landfills, by determining whether post-consumer cotton textiles can be transformed into cellulosic building blocks for new and usable products.

According to a 2020 study, every year the average American disposes of nearly 70 pounds of used clothing, or 16 million tons for the entire U.S., Cotton Inc. noted. Close to 40 percent of U.S. consumers say they donate unwanted apparel to charities, which on the surface appears beneficial to those in need, as well as the environment. However, data suggests that 85 percent of those donations will wind up in a landfill.

Compared to other fibers, cotton is inherently unique from a chemical and biological perspective because it is essentially pure and natural cellulose. As a result of this composition, cotton clothing has the potential for near complete hydrolysis into bio-based building blocks such as glucose, or more simply, cotton clothing has the potential to be utilized as a post-consumer biomass for the production of new value-added products, the group said.

For the past few years, research at Cotton Inc. led by Matt Farrell and Mary Ankeny in the Textile Chemistry Research Department has focused on developing a facile chemical and enzyme-based cotton-to-sugar concept that could be easily adapted in the commercial realm. Cotton Inc. is collaborating with North Carolina State University researchers to investigate the technical and economic feasibility of this approach.

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“In research, we are constantly introduced to the next best idea,” Farrell said. “Typically, these ideas are accompanied by unrealized technical or economical challenges that mitigate the practicality of the idea. The idea and developments of the NCSU professors not only showcases practicality but highlights the powers of collaboration, the power of a sustainable chemistry mindset and the power of cotton as a ubiquitous material to be used and reused in nearly all facets of everyday life.”

This collaboration led the NCSU team to propose and then research and develop a highly efficient and simple process to degrade cotton fabric. The project at NCSU, sponsored by Cotton Inc., is supporting a state-of-the-art research project to efficiently convert recycled cotton textiles to bio-based building blocks suitable for the manufacturing of sustainable chemicals and additives.

The NCSU project team led by Ronalds Gonzalez, Hasan Jameel and Ronald Marquez has been working in the development of a chemical free, low energy consumption and low CAPEX conversion process. The technology has been proven at bench scale and the team is working toward a pilot scale demonstration in 2021. This research is at the heart of the circular economy enabling the transformation of waste materials for further utilization.