Dave Trecker

Recycling clothes is next.

And that’s something new. We know about the problems with plastics. We fill our grocery carts with them every week, and they end up in landfills or, worse, polluting the oceans, some 12 million metric tons every year.

To address the problem, the United Nations is marshaling a worldwide effort to recycle single-use plastics, and many polymer manufacturers and food companies are pitching in to help.

That all makes sense. Recycling plastics we understand. But clothes? Why recycle clothes?

The answer is, like plastic waste, textiles have a huge environmental footprint. The European Commission says the average consumer throws away 24 pounds of textiles a year. Multiply that by millions of consumers.

Some 73% of textile waste is dumped in landfills or incinerated, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which estimates that by 2030 the disposed material will total 134 million metric tons.

Chemical & Engineering News says that translates to 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year, more than the emissions from all international flights and maritime shipping combined.

Not surprisingly, the fashion world is a big contributor to the problem. Because fashion styles change every year, many clothes conscious people – my daughter among them – change their wardrobes and eventually dispose of the dresses and slacks that are out of style.

Disposal isn’t even necessary. Simply washing the clothes triggers waste. The journal Environmental Pollution reports, “The number of microfibers released from a typical 5 kg wash load of polyester fabrics is over 6 million depending on the type of detergent used.”

Some 35% of micropolymers entering the ocean are from synthetic textiles, mostly polyesters.

Plastics and textiles have one thing in common. Both are polymers made up of chemicals. As such, there are similar ways to deal with them when discarded.

Cotton-rich garments can be shredded, slurried and their pulp either extruded and spun into yarn or dried and cut into sheets.

Polyester clothing and even plastic bottles can be similarly shredded and the contaminants removed. The polyester can then be depolymerized, purified and depolymerized, melted and spun into fiber.

If that sounds expensive, it is. Most reconstituted garments sell at a premium these days, attracting mostly the save-the-planet crowd. Since the recycle process is scale dependent, higher-volume manufacture should bring down costs and broaden the market.

A better bet may be to start with textiles that are sustainable to begin with. Rayon is one of those. A cellulosic that can be made from wood chips, rayon waste can be recycled by purifying withurea to make a carbamate that’s easily converted into a fiber, itself recyclable.

Lest this sound pie-in-the-sky, textile reuse is attracting capital from around the world. Start-ups are emerging in Finland, Sweden, Chile, Italy and clothing retailers like Benetton, H&M and Marks & Spencer are providing consumer outlets. The opportunity is there. Less than 0.5% of textile waste is currently being recycled.

Advertisements are starting to appear. My wife just clipped ads for reconstituted shirts, sneakers and Levi’s. It’s not a movement, at least not yet. But it may soon be. The appeal is undeniable. Green garments. Clothes from trees. Textiles from trash. All recycled.

Dr. Trecker is a chemist and retired Pfizer executive living in Naples.

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