From Worn to Reborn: Making the Case for Chemical Recycling in the Textile Industry

The Sustainability Imperative

In an age where sustainability transcends trendiness to become an imperative, the textile industry stands at a defining moment.

Annually, millions of tons of clothing are either discarded into landfills or downcycled, exacerbating the environmental crisis. While mechanical textile recycling offers a partial solution, it’s not without its flaws. This method often degrades fibers into a fine, fluffy substance, which is then downcycled into products like cushion fillers or toys. Although this is a step above direct disposal, it doesn’t fully address the sustainability challenge.

Chemical recycling emerges as a revolutionary solution for revitalizing old textiles. By disintegrating fibers at a molecular level, textiles can be repurposed without sacrificing quality. This approach not only offers textiles a renewed life but also substantially diminishes the carbon footprint linked to new cotton fabric production. As we approach a transformative phase in textiles, the path forward is evident: a future where garments are continuously reborn. This article unravels the textile industry’s complexities, emphasizing the urgent need for sustainable practices and the promising innovations that could reshape our relationship with textiles.

The environmental consequences of cotton production have been a longstanding concern. Recent studies, however, have illuminated the profound impact of this “fabric of our lives.” Issues ranging from water usage to pesticide application have garnered scrutiny. Yet, emerging research is demystifying cotton’s environmental footprint, highlighting both its challenges and potential remedies.

Beyond Waste Management: Recycled vs. Virgin Cotton Yarns

Shimul Roy’s 2023 study, “Life cycle environmental impact assessment of cotton recycling and the benefits of a Take-Back system,” delves into these concerns, uncovering the multifaceted environmental repercussions of cotton production, such as soil degradation and excessive water consumption.

Cotton recycling emerges not just as an eco-friendly alternative but as a game-changer. Companies focusing on circularity are designing garments for disassembly, sorting, and recycling, incorporating a “take-back system.” This approach, if widely adopted, could significantly curtail the demand for virgin cotton, easing its environmental impact.

In this way, cotton recycling can signify more than just waste management. It can embody a shift in our resource perception and utilization. As global challenges around sustainability intensify, cotton recycling represents a transition from linear to circular consumption models.

Roy’s insights are merely a starting point. A 2020 study from The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment provides a comparative analysis of recycled versus virgin cotton yarns, revealing the environmental costs of our fabric preferences.

The research, titled, “Could the recycled yarns substitute for the virgin cotton yarns: a comparative LCA,” by Liu et al explores the environmental nuances of both yarn types. Recycled cotton yarns, while environmentally preferable in many ways, come with their own set of challenges. The process of recycling cotton, while eliminating the need for new cotton cultivation, still requires energy and resources. For instance, the recycling process involves breaking down old fabrics, which can consume electricity and water. In the life cycle of yarn production, electricity and water consumptions are key factors in the recycled cotton yarn scenario.

Furthermore, depending on the quality and condition of the recycled cotton, additional treatments or processes might be needed to ensure the recycled yarn meets quality standards. These treatments can sometimes involve chemicals or processes that have their own environmental implications.

However, when comparing the two, virgin cotton yarns have a more pronounced environmental impact due to the land occupation and irrigation water associated with cotton cultivation. Liu et al.’s research highlights that by opting for recycled cotton yarns, there’s a conservation of approximately 0.5 hectares of agricultural land per ton of yarn, a reduction of 6600 kg CO2 equivalent in emissions, and a saving of 2783 m3 of irrigation water. This research underscores the environmental savings achieved by opting for recycled cotton yarns.

Research from Finland’s VTT Technical Research Centre in 2019 champions cotton recycling as a revolutionary approach. The study introduces Cellulose Carbamate (CCA) technology, a chemical recycling method that rejuvenates discarded cotton textiles. This process epitomizes the circular economy, emphasizing continuous material reuse.

CCA technology’s allure lies in its environmental efficiency. The research indicates that using discarded cotton textiles as raw material via the CCA process offers considerable environmental benefits over conventional methods.

Key insights from the study include identifying processes that majorly influence the global warming potential of production. Such insights equip industries to refine and minimize their carbon footprint. The research also underscores the benefits of integrating spinning mills with pulp mills, emphasizing energy efficiency.

In summary, while recycled cotton yarns present a greener alternative, it’s crucial to address their environmental challenges to fully realize their potential. Adopting these practices can drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions and the textile industry’s vast carbon footprint, underscoring the urgency for sustainable practices. By chemically recycling old clothes and uniforms, we’re not merely discarding them; we’re actively combating climate change.


This compilation of research paints a vivid picture of the textile industry’s potential future. It’s a future where sustainability is a guiding principle, not just a buzzword. The overarching message is clear: the textile industry is at a crossroads. We can continue down the path of traditional cotton cultivation with its environmental toll or venture into innovative production methods using recycled cotton fibers. This choice offers textiles that are not only of high quality but also environmentally conscientious.

In our environmentally conscious world, the textile industry is at a crucial intersection. The clothes we wear, especially cotton-based ones, carry significant ecological implications. However, pioneering research has revealed both the depth of these environmental challenges and the innovative solutions poised to transform the industry. In light of these revelations, it’s imperative for producers to champion and adopt these sustainable innovations, ensuring a harmonious balance between fashion and our planet’s well-being.

About the Author(s)

Rae Knopik

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