Sustainable fibres to the forefront

Sustainable fibres to the forefront

Industrial revolution has been the key to various advancements around the globe. Companies try to produce more and better in order to cater both the want and needs of people across the globe.

Industrial revolution has been the key to various advancements around the globe. Companies try to produce more and better in order to cater both the want and needs of people across the globe. The dark side of increasing production rate and new technologies with more synthetics in it are truly a source of textile pollution. Recently, the media was highlighting the Mount Everest, being accumulated with tonnes of waste that was recently evacuated by both Indian and Chinese government. Even the less trespassed area like this, is a victim to pollution. Pollution related issues are a huge threat in the recent times, considering the nature of waste and the quantity of it disposed and unmanageable. The solution hence should be framed to restore the balance between nature and production. It is important to think and discuss about this, as a means of creating awareness about the eco-hazards that it in turn will strongly affect the human race.

Lifecycle of textile fibres
Man-made fibres are made at a very cheaper rate compared to the natural fibres. This is the reason for synthetic fabrics to be available at a lower cost, which is an important driving force for purchasing more. It in turn is a key factor for increase of landfill dumping with textiles in the last decade.

On the other way, natural fibres like cotton and linen are compostable but synthetics are not bio-degradable. This reason forms the base suggesting the very popular PET bottle recycled fabric also not good for nature. Even though the PET bottle recycling is receiving good welcome around the world, some claim that it is still an eco-hazard material that will be harmful when it is disposed after wear and tear. Hence the shift is now towards products grown organically.

Fibres from milk, aloe-vera, sisal, hemp, banana, corn, peanut, areca-nut, soya, bamboo, cotton stalk and sunflower stem are explored and made into home textiles and apparels. These fibres save the energy and resources and also in preventing from being a pollutant in future. Such bio-based fibres from alternative source also reduce the impact on ecosystem by reducing the greenhouse gases by 60 per cent. When textiles made from such fibres are disposed to the environment, they degrade and release explosive green-house gases like methane and leachate. The former plays a key role in polluting the ground water and water bodies. Composting and vermi-composting is the only very successful technology to handle organic wastes, which is the only solution for fabric made form 100 per cent natural fibres.

Types of textile wastes
Pre-consumer and post-consumer are two categories of waste that are released into the ecology. The old used clothing is mostly discarded in the landfills or incinerated (burnt away). The deposit in landfill can cause serious effect to the humans and ecology. Toxic gases and other greenhouse gases are released due to decomposition. The landfill space is reduced. It is reported that eighty million apparels are made every year. In the United states, 5 per cent of waste (13 MT) disposed consists of textiles out of which only 15 per cent is recycled and rest is dumped in the landfills. In Canada, 10 per cent clothing is sold by charity houses (like goodwill) where the old dresses are collected and the remaining 90 per cent is sent to recycling company among which 35 per cent is made into rugs. Whereas the UK government tries to re-use and recycle the entire textile wastes into their main stream apparel lines.

Textiles are either damaged, worn out, torn, or been disposed for bring old fashioned, which are eventually discarded. These wastes are either thrown in a landfill or burnt away by incineration or recycling. Due to various pollution issues, post-consumer textile waste is collected sorted and recycled into materials for other end uses like carpet, rugs and recycled apparel. Some are collected and sent to third-world countries like Africa. Reports portray that 80 per cent of the Africans wear used clothing. On the other hand, there is a huge bulk of textiles from post-consumer section, which has been less explored but has a huge potential for recycling and application in different forms of technical textiles.

The market for recycled textiles is now flourishing with more consumers being aware about the ecological problems and shift towards concepts like veganism.

Problem associated with textile waste
Studies conducted by Cheap fashion (World wildlife Fund) open up the fact that 8,500 litres of water are used to make one kilogram of cotton lint, by which one denim jean for an adult can be made. Recycling textiles can help in reducing the energy and resources considerably. Another survey suggests that every year one individual can utilise 25 kg of textile fibre. Another report published by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of US, reports that each person discards 32 kg of textiles in their lifetime. About 15 per cent are recycled and 85 per cent are thrown in landfill. This waste sums up to 1.5 MT that can be recycled to worth £24 million. Seeking the assistance of public help: door to door, kerbside, textile bank and charity shop can greatly assist in recycling wastes.

Textile materials are of three types, durables, semi -durable and disposables. They may be used in different purpose but end of the life cycle it reaches the landfill as a pollutant at the end of its life cycle. But just like the butterfly from moth, recycling technique intervene and try to cycle the product to be made into a product suitable for the desired end use. In the recent times, “Donate your gently used clothing items” is a phrase that is used to collect the old textiles from consumers. By using such strategy and excavating textiles before reaching landfill, the process of recycling begins.

Process of textile up-cycling
Primarily, sorting is done where the zippers and buttons are removed. Then based on the need for dyes and fibre types, the collected material was grouped. Coloured fabrics and white fabrics will be separated based on the end use. Dyed fabrics are usually not coloured again and mostly sent to the next step of shredding. In case of neutral colours like white, black and grey, they are collected and sorted separately. In few cases a common dye colour is applied at the spinning stage to ensure a uniform shade in the resultant product.

Thermal, chemical and material are three types of recycling technologies. Application of heat and chemical is mostly suitable for synthetics. For example, in case of synthetic fibres like polyester, the collected fabrics are shredded, granulated and converted into chips/ pellets which are then melted and made into recycled polyester yarns.

Material recycling is done for materials that has fibres derived from natural origin. Wool for example, is one among the frequently recycled fibre. Old wool is often mixed with virgin wool to make new products. Sometimes the yarns are unravelled from the fabric, wound and then blended into a new yarn. This can be done using the recycled yarn or it can be made by blending with another fibre to obtain required property in finished fabric. Further weaving or knitting can be done using the yarn and the short fibers that came up from processing can be made into non-wovens. The popular technologies include thermal bonding, needle punching, resin bonding, composite making or any method of non-woven technology.

Applications of recycled materials
Waste plastic bottled are collected and made into a fashionable cap. As a means of utilising less resources, researchers have found a method to produce nylon from Plant waste, sun and water everyday many researches are being done world-wide to explore technique to recycle textile wastes into value added products.

Recycled products made from textiles are used in build tech. One such apparel item is denim. It is interesting to know the old denims have such an interesting end use. The collected textiles are further processed to be used in geotextiles, the textile materials used in construction of road, dam, sloppy terrains and even deserts. It is also suggestible that Argo textiles has good option to reuse the non-woven made from recycled textiles. There is a need for materials that can hold water and ensure moisture in the ground for longer time. These recycled materials made from low quality fabrics can serve the purpose very well.

The super-absorbents are a category in recycled materials. These are used very much in industries from cleaning to filtration process. To create stain or dye using the recycled material. Miller Waste Mills Inc., is one such textile up-cycling companies that create products using cotton, wool, silk, hemp, wood, sisal, jute and used as a stain application, filter medium and to remove stain. The main product being polishing wipes that are used in ships to polish the metal pieces. The materials normally produced encompass of wiping and polishing cloth for industrial use, reinforcement materials like composites, mulching sheet to grow plants in agriculture and also in filtration textiles, construction and acoustic textiles.

Food Packaging using bulrush, bamboo and bagasse is an upcoming trend of using natural fibres for new applications to create clam shell, utility tray, cup, plate, tray, cup, box, and lids. Bio-degradable, recyclable and compostable. The material is safe for oven, microwave and freezer [10]. It is mind blowing that a recycled textile material is used in making of food grade items that enable packing of food. This product is one of the buzzing in the packaging field, where conventional jute-based products replacing plastic is now overruled by textile recycled materials that look like a natures plate.

Apart from recycled textiles, a huge number of products are used as fillers in upholstery (filling in sofa and bed) and bedding. The collected fabrics are shredded and made into filling/ stuffing material for upholstery like furniture and bedding which make them serve them purpose being hidden inside the product. With a view to ergonomics, supportive pillow design that resembles the back of a person seated, along with textile waste as fillers can be coolest research idea with a commercial viability.

International brands and sustainable clothing
In 2015, Nike was awarded for their constant efforts in supply chain and production efforts, as the most sustainable corporate in clothing and footwear brand, the app developed by the company helps in tracking the carbon footprint caused by each product. The post-consumer wastes are recycled into their main stream production. The size of the box to the shoes were reduced to show the reduction in material consumption. Also, the effluent was monitored after frequent efforts taken in reducing the pollution from the industry to the society. The company invested a huge share in creating energy efficiency practices.

The have also collaborated with chemical companies and NASA to assist them in cleaner production techniques. Walmart has also launched products that are made by recycling polyester and nylon. The polypropylene used in sports wear are commonly recycled by converting fabric into pellets with the helps for melting chemicals. Sustainable labels like Patagonia collect the old used garments and use in their main stream production. The companies have a separate segment in the store where people can drop the old clothing which will be taken to Nevada service centre. As shown in the picture their marketing strategy is also insisting on sustainability, asking their customer, not to buy excessively.

The H&M and Lanvin also collaborated to collect wastes and recycle into new garments. LMB has also started an initiative which collects clothes of every kind and sets various recycling techniques to suit appropriate end uses.

Fibres made from man-made process using petrochemicals create a string carbon footprint. Sustainable clothing has huge potential and growing market share with very good business opportunities.

The market is now inquisitive to watch jute bags for holding coffee beans and coconut fibre Anaf being used in various health textiles. Further researches are done in creating new products and techniques and reduce the carbon footprint. World-wide sorting of the disposed wastes is given attention. Collecting bins in retail outlets and public areas has kindled the spirit of safe disposal among the consumers. Plethora of options are available in this eco-system which can be a wonderful option for a greener path for future.

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The author is INSPIRE Fellow (DST-GOI) and Assistant Professor from the Department of Textiles and Clothing, Avinashilingam University for Women, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. Email:

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