Textile Waste Recycled: Chemical Recycling Breakthrough

The fashion industry is a major contributor to global waste, and recycling textiles effectively has proven challenging. But a new chemical processing technique offers a glimmer of hope.

Chemical Recycling

Researchers have developed a method to break down fabrics, even blends, into reusable molecules. This breakthrough paves the way for chemical recycling to give old clothes a new life.

Traditional recycling often involves physically separating materials. This works well for some items, but textiles are a different story. Many clothes are a mix of fibers, like cotton and polyester. Separating these blends with mechanical methods is difficult and often results in unusable materials.

The researchers looked to chemical recycling as an alternative. They used a process called microwave-assisted glycolysis to break down the synthetic components of fabrics into reusable building blocks. This reaction uses heat and a catalyst to break apart long chains of molecules (polymers) into smaller units.

The team tested the process on fabrics with different compositions, including pure polyester and a 50/50 cotton-polyester blend. For pure polyester, a whopping 90% was converted into a molecule called BHET, which can be directly recycled back into new polyester clothes!

Even better, the reaction didn’t harm the cotton in blended fabrics. This means the process can break down the polyester while leaving the cotton intact for potential reuse.

The researchers optimized the chemical reaction conditions for speed and efficiency, achieving success in just 15 minutes. This significantly reduces costs, making large-scale implementation more feasible. The study also explored how the reaction behaves with other material combinations. Even with textiles containing unknown proportions of cotton, polyester, nylon, or spandex, the results were promising.

Further development could see this technology recycle a staggering 88% of clothing worldwide, according to the researchers’ analysis. This breakthrough offers a significant step towards tackling the ever-growing mountain of textile waste.

Reference- Nature, National Geographic, EARTHDAY.ORG, BBC, The Guardian, Science Advances, University of Delaware in Newark