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These Finnish Scientists Are Rethinking Upcycled Fashion

When it’s deliver-or-die, supply chains become the lifeblood of a company. To that end, the fashion industry has embraced technology to navigate today’s hyper-complicated supply chain, with myriad solutions shaping the first, middle and last mile. Call it Sourcing 2.0.

What if it was possible to recycle clothes the way we recycle newspaper? A group of Finnish scientists are currently exploring this possibility.

With support from the European Union’s Trash-2-Cash project and the Finnish Government, the team presented a new apparel upcycling method at the American Chemical Society (ACS) 253rd National Meeting & Exposition in San Francisco on Monday.

The team’s new method can dissolve blended materials, separate cellulose and spin new lyocell-like fibers from recycled clothing. With this new upcycling alternative, the apparel industry is one step closer to reducing its carbon footprint and promoting a more circular economy.

“People don’t want to spend much money on textiles anymore, but poor-quality garments don’t last,” researcher Simone Haslinger explains. “A small amount might be recycled as cleaning rags, but the rest ends up in landfills, where it degrades and releases carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas.”

Even though some initiatives, including take-back programs and reusing clothing fibers in other products do help, they don’t solve the larger apparel pollution problem.

According to research lead Herbert Sixta, Ph.D, upcycling worn-out garments could be a solution to this dilemma. If there was a way to break down old fibers and turn them into new ones, that could be a sustainable method over throwing away worn-out apparel. Producing recycled fibers that are stronger than native fibers could be challenging though, since cotton and other fibers are often blended with synthetic materials.

Previous research demonstrated that ionic liquids could dissolve cellulose, but the resulting material couldn’t be reused again to make garment fibers. Approximately five years ago, Sixta’s team discovered 1,5-diazabicyclo[4.3.0]non-5-ene acetate, an ionic liquid that could dissolve cellulose and produce a material that could be spun into fibers. Further, the researchers said the  fibers felt like Lyocell, a sustainable wood pulp fiber, and were stronger than commercially available viscose.

The researchers then applied the same process to test the same ionic liquid with cotton-polyester blends. Using the ionic liquid, the team dissolved the cotton into a cellulose solution and filtered out the polyester. Due to the ionic liquid’s abilities, the team was then able to spin fibers out of the cellulose solution that could be used to manufacture apparel.

Although this method is not ready for commercialization yet, the team is testing if recovered polyester could be spun back into usable fibers and investigating if dyes from discarded clothing could also be recycled.

“You can’t just feed all the material into the same process. Industry and policymakers have to work on the logistics,” Sixta said. “With all the rubbish piling up, it is in everyone’s best interest to find a solution.”

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