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Can We Make Clothes Entirely from Recycled Cotton?

Can We Make Clothes Entirely from Recycled Cotton?

You may have noticed “organic cotton” on your t-shirt label, but what about “recycled cotton”?

In the United States, we produce around 14.3 million tons of textile waste per year, and about 50% of that could be recycled. While we know how to recycle cotton, making a garment solely out of recycled cotton fibers has been a different story; recycled cotton has most often gone to filler material for carpeting. Recently, however, a company in Sweden revealed the first garment made entirely from 100% recycled cotton.

“The scalability of this process is enormous,” Henrik Norlin, business development manager at re:newcell, the company that made the pioneering material, told The Guardian. “The technology allows us to recycle all materials that contain cellulose.”

Cotton accounts for around a a third of the world’s textile consumption, which means that the potential for using recycled fibers instead of virgin ones is huge.

The problem is that sometimes we get so excited about the prospect of recycling that we lose sight of an even more essential way to deal with waste: consume less. Just because we are able to recycle a garment does not mean that we should consume more garments. If anything, the ability to make a garment out of 100% recycled cotton should be an entry point for getting us to the discussion of the fashion industry at large and our own levels of consumption.

Recycling may not even be the best way to deal with cotton textile waste. Recycling textiles can involve dangerous materials, and once you’ve made a recycled fiber, it may not be as easily recyclable the next time around. If we wanted a full circle approach, composting might be an even better option. However, ”the dyes are a problem, which is why we need innovation in dyes,” Lewis Perkins, senior vice president of the San Francisco-based Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, told the Guardian. “But in the future we could even add valuable nutrients to clothes, which would benefit the soil when we compost them.”

But composting cotton certainly isn’t as sexy as recycling it, and doesn’t give us new garments to wear, which means you won’t hear from any of the fashion companies arguing for that option any time soon.

Re:newcell’s new garment is certainly an exciting innovation, and it paves the path for other companies to invest in similar technologies. Imagine a world where we all wore garments from recycled cotton. Ultimately, however, we can’t just think about what our clothes are made of. We also have to think about how much we’re consuming, and how to reduce that consumption.

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Photo Credit: Steven Depolo

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74 comments

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3:39PM PDT on Aug 24, 2014

I'm more concerned about all the clothing that is virtually plastic and doesn't biodegrade easily. No matter how or where it breaks down, it releases nasty chemicals.

9:38PM PDT on Aug 23, 2014

Or if you live in a town like mine where they make recycling anything but beer cans virtually impossible, the thought of being able to recycle clothing seems rather distant. Recycling of everything needs to be mandatory in all our towns - even if it is added as an expense. I would not mind a higher garbage/recycle cost if I were actually able to recycle more of what I have.

7:46PM PDT on Aug 23, 2014

Very interesting.

12:28AM PDT on Aug 22, 2014

Interesting article, thank you!

10:58PM PDT on Aug 21, 2014

I have learned to attempt to re-cycle everything around me. Clothing is no exception. I long ago learned to start NEW trends by wearing some of my still good,but outdated clothing. So been there,done that and who knows? Almost everything does come back!!!...

9:00PM PDT on Aug 21, 2014

Good concept.

4:44PM PDT on Aug 21, 2014

Thanks Ann for sharing the news. A good concept but in my mind your last sentence says it all:
"We also have to think about how much we’re consuming, and how to reduce that consumption.

4:39PM PDT on Aug 21, 2014

We have never heeded the words of Chief Seattle where we should consider the impact of our actions on the next 7 generations. If we had tried to research safe dyes and ways to reuse this and other fibers, we wouldn't be having these conversations. Is it too late to get moving in this direction? I hope not. Let's just try...

6:35AM PDT on Aug 21, 2014

Todd, thanks for intelligent comments, and i second your [sigh...]
I can only give you 1 star per unit of time, however, so take my intention instead.
Steven G. 1820's ? don't you mean 1920's ?
Wendy J. excellent comment. We could have fun sharing and comparing sewing creations. I never learned to use sewing machine, but create a lot with needle and thread !
This article is not bad, but gives short shrift to a better alternative many of us enjoy, i.e. reduce consumption of new clothing by re-use, i.e. used clothing.
The best thing about this city, Busan, is loads of used textiles are shipped here from Japan. It is a veritable treasure trove for me ^^

4:55AM PDT on Aug 21, 2014

Interesting :)

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