Finnish Scientists engineer new way to up-cycle discarded clothes, made of blended fiber fabrics.
Recycling and even upcycling clothes may soon be possible. This has been shown by scientists in Finland. The development will go a long way in addressing environmental concerns associated with the fashion industry. Making and dyeing clothes creates pollution. The fast fashion system has worsened the scene.
A project, funded by the European Union’s Trash-2-Cash project and the Finnish government, aims to strategise the upcycling of worn-out garments. “We want to not only recycle garments, we want to produce the best possible textiles so that recycled fibers are even better than conventional fibers,” says Herbert Sixta, who heads the biorefineries research group at Aalto University. Achieving this is not that simple because cotton and other fibers are often blended with polyester in fabrics, which complicates processing.
Previous research had showed that many ionic liquids can dissolve cellulose. But the resulting material could not be re-used to make new fibers. It was Sixta’s team about five years ago which found an ionic liquid – 1,5-diazabicyclo[4.3.0]non-5-ene acetate – that could dissolve cellulose from wood pulp, producing a material that could be spun into fibers. Later testing showed that these fibers were stronger than commercially available viscose and similar to lyocell.
Building on this process, the researchers engineered how to apply the same ionic liquid to cotton-polyester blends. They were able to dissolve the cotton into a cellulose solution without affecting the polyester. Polyester was filtered out, after the cotton had dissolved. Consequently, it was possible without any additional processing, to spin fibers out of the cellulose solution, to be used to weave new fabrics.
The research is work in progress to test whether the recovered polyester can also be spun back into usable fibers. In addition, the research aims to scale up the whole process and is investigating how to reuse dyes from discarded clothing.
“We can handle the science, but we might not know what dye was used, for example, because it’s not labeled. You can’t just feed all the material into the same process. Industry and policymakers have to work on the logistics. With all the rubbish piling up, it is in everyone’s best interest to find a solution,” Sixta notes.