New process to boost clothing recycling

New chemical process to recycle clothing - Newsreel
A new chemical process could open the way for mass recycling of clothing. | Photo: Drazen Zigic (iStock)

A new chemical processing technique could vastly improve the rate of clothing recycling around the world.

Researchers at the University of Delaware have reported that the new technique can break down fabrics into reusable molecules.

The Nature journal reports that, if scaled up, this could overcome the current low rates of clothing recycling.

It said less than one percent of textiles were currently recycled and three quarters ended up incinerated or in landfill.

Study co-author Dionisios Vlachos told Nature that “a good third or more” of microplastics that end up in the ocean were from clothing.

“Our ability to develop technology to be able to handle all this waste and remove them from the environment, landfills and the oceans is very important,” he said.

The researchers studied chemical recycling to break down some synthetic components of fabrics.

Then they used a chemical reaction called “microwave-assisted glycolysis” to break down a large chains of molecules into smaller units.

“They used this to process fabrics with different compositions, including 100 percent polyester and 50/50 polycotton, which is made up of polyester and cotton,” Nature reported.

“For pure polyester fabric, the reaction converted 90 percent of the polyester into a molecule called BHET, which can be directly recycled to create more polyester textiles.

“The researchers found that the reaction didn’t affect cotton, so in polyester–cotton fabrics, it was possible to both break down the polyester and recover the cotton.”

The full report can be found on the Nature website.