Forget flimsy fast-fashion garments that are designed to be virtually disposable; what if everything in your closet could be made using only recycled materials and then transformed into new clothes after it goes out of style? Thanks to a recent spate of technological developments, a fully circular wardrobe – one that’s able to live almost forever – suddenly seems within reach. Last summer, Montreal-based retailer Frank and Oak introduced a circular-denim range, made with 10 to 20 percent post-consumer materials collected from items like worn-out jeans and discarded fabrics, while Toronto’s luxe Beaufille label included fabrics made from recycled plastic bottles in several recent collections. Globally, brands such as Adidas and Stella McCartney have announced commitments to completely phase out materials like virgin nylon and virgin polyester from their supply chains over the next five years.

It’s not an entirely recent pursuit; Patagonia brought its now famous Synchilla-fleece pullover, made from used soda bottles, to market in 1993. (Today, more than 69 percent of the brand’s textiles across all styles are made with recycled materials.) “It’s far better to be able to use something that would either be sitting in a landfill forever or polluting the environment instead of creating products from new materials,” says Sarah Hayes, senior material research and innovation manager at Patagonia.

These are big, necessary moves: The global textile industry uses a tremendous amount of non-renewable resources every year, including approximately 93 billion cubic metres of water. And according to a 2017 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a huge majority of used clothes and fashion-industry textile scraps are simply incinerated or sent to landfills. The foundation estimates that just 13 percent of clothes are recycled in some way and less than 1 percent of used clothing is incorporated into new garments (because post-consumer textiles are more often downcycled into lower-value products such as mattress stuffing and insulation).

Not surprisingly, closed-loop systems, in which new products are made from recycled materials only, are an emerging industry goal; textile manufacturers and fashion brands alike are investing in technology that will be able to recycle used clothing, and not just recycled plastics, into new garments. Because while embracing the principles of the circular economy is important, actually putting those ideals into practice in the commercial market brings a wide-ranging set of challenges. The simple transportation of used clothing is one of the first obstacles, says Hayes. “Manufacturing for apparel happens all over the world, and you have to be careful because a lot of countries don’t want to accept giant containers that seem like they’re full of trash.”

Thanks to a recent spate of technological developments, a fully circular wardrobe – one that’s able to live almost forever – suddenly seems within reach.

Then, there’s the not-so-simple challenge of transforming the collected textiles into usable raw materials. “Whole garments are difficult to recycle because they’re made of different materials,” says Dr. Alejandra Echeverri, a post-doctoral fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University. Being able to separate each material is critical because every component likely requires a distinct recycling process, she says. But it’s time-consuming to parse out trims, like buttons or zippers, and tricky to sort the textiles themselves. After all, explains Hayes, when it comes to old clothes, “the content tag is not on there.”

Then after all that, manufacturers often need to add some virgin fibres back into recycled products, limiting the maximum percentage of reused content in the end product, because the mechanical sorting and recycling processes being used often lower the quality of textiles and can’t eliminate dyes or contaminants.

Still, there are many promising developments – especially with regard to polymer-recycling technologies, which break down fibres to a molecular level. “There are a lot of really smart people working on solutions,” says Hayes. “Taking a blended textile, separating the different fibre types and then finding streams to reuse them felt like an impossible challenge, but we’re seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.”

In recent years, the number of new textiles coming to market with recycled components has grown significantly, thanks to scalable technological innovations. ECONYL, launched in 2011 and commercially available, is an “infinitely recyclable” regenerated nylon yarn made entirely from recycled carpets, old fishing nets and factory-textile offcuts. Refibra, an upcycled lyocell fabric made with cotton scraps from factories and wood pulp, has been used by brands like Mara Hoffman and Eileen Fisher. And last July, Adidas by Stella McCartney grabbed headlines when it debuted the fully recyclable Infinite Hoodie, which is made with 60 percent of an innovative recycled fabric called NuCycl and 40 percent cotton diverted from landfills.

Consuming less is what we all need to do if we’re going to take environmental sustainability seriously.

“NuCycl is basically made from post-consumer cotton-garment waste and designed to be broken down in the future,” says Stacy Flynn, CEO and founder of Evrnu, the American company behind the closed-loop material, which will likely be available at retail in 2020 through brand partnerships. The technology is notable because it allows cotton – a water- and resource-thirsty crop – to be recycled up to four times, which isn’t always the case with recycled garments. The key difference is that the brand’s process makes the regenerated material stronger instead of weaker. “We take cotton-garment waste from a solid, liquefy it and then turn it back into a solid,” explains Flynn. And in that process, we can orient the polymers and actually create higher-quality fibre. If we’re able to keep resources in circulation for more than one iteration, we can allow our industry to grow at a fraction of its overall impact by preventing garbage from entering landfills.”

But while textile recycling lightens the burden being put on landfills, it’s not a panacea for all of fashion’s sustainability issues; after all, the processes still require a lot of energy and can create longer transportation chains. “Even if we have the most sustainable supply chain with a circular economy where all textiles can be 100 percent recycled, we’re still going to have waste at some point,” says Echeverri. “Consuming less is what we all need to do if we’re going to take environmental sustainability seriously.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of ELLE Canada. Subscribe here


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