During the summer of 2016 articles from our growing archive will be republished. This one was first published in November 2014.
The world’s use of textiles amounts to around 73 million tons per year and is expected to increase by three percent each year. In Sweden, the annual amount is 130,000 tons. It is safe to say that most wardrobes contain unused garments that have seen better days.
The environmental impact of textile production is well known. One of the problems is the lack of effective processes to recycle fibers. Large amounts of old clothes are either incinerated or end up in landfills. The only real forms of recycling available are charity donations.
re:newcell, a Swedish company, has developed and patented textile recycling technology. “Our process converts cellulose fibers from cotton and trees (rayon) into a pulp to produce new. The technology is unique and is based the pulp industry methods,” says Gunnar Henriksson, professor of wood chemistry and co-owner of re:newcell.
Same fiber – different origins
Cellulose fiber is the common factor in a sweater made of either cotton or rayon. “The recovery of the cellulose fibers occurs in several stages. First, the fabric is torn apart mechanically, and buttons, zippers and synthetic materials are separated. The following step is to dissolve the cellulose. We have also developed a chemical method that further shreds the fabric,” continues Henriksson.
“The fibers produced by our method are as strong and have as high a quality as the fibers of the original fabrics. Another advantage is that the recycled fibers can be mixed with fresh pulp, which reduces the need for virgin raw materials in the industry. Our customers are companies that produce textiles such as rayon and lyocell, and producers of dissolved pulp. Furthermore, the material is ideal for manufacturing non-woven textile products, such as diapers and medical garments,” says Henriksson.
The method of recycling textiles is now being further developed at Greenhouse Labs at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm. The next step is to build a prototype plant to recycle textiles from all over Scandinavia. This represents a significant investment and the business model presupposes access to clothes at a low price. And there must of course be a market for recycled fibers.
Unique yellow dress
The yellow dress in the picture is very special. It was unveiled in the summer of 2014, and is the first in the world to be made from recycled cotton from blue jeans. The dress represents a partnership between re: newcell, KTH, Swedish Konstsilke AB, Textilhögskolan in Borås, and Wargön Innovation.
Henry Norlin, business development manager at re: newcell, considers recycled textiles a necessity in the future to fill the demand for textiles, while reducing environmental impact.
“I think we will see a development similar to that which we have seen in the recycling of paper. Future textiles will consist of various combinations of recycled textile fibers and wood pulp. The new fibers can come from both the cotton plant and the forest.”
This article was published in November 2014