Which Fabrics Can Actually Be Recycled, And Why Does It Matter?

Waste is a huge issue in the modern fashion industry. An estimated 15-20% of the fabric used to create a garment ends up wasted and each Australian purchases an average 27 kilograms of new clothing per year. Of this, 23 kilograms will then be thrown away. Which is why proper garment recycling is essential.

Unfortunately, though, not all fabrics are created equal when it comes to recycling. The easiest garments to recycle are those made from high quality single fibres, especially 100% natural fibres like organic cotton. Even synthetic garments made from polyester or nylon, for example, can be effectively recycled when the material composition is 100%.

The difficulty arises, however, when those fibres have been blended. This is because the extraction process becomes much more complex when there is more than one material involved. The process for extracting cotton fibres out of a blended T-shirt, for example, is much more complicated than if that garment was made from 100% organic cotton.

Fibre blends are common in today’s fashion industry, because they can improve the properties of textiles. But they also make the recycling process much more difficult. “From the perspective of the circular-flow economy,” writes Innovation Origins, “fibre blends are problematic because they cannot be recycled profitably. So far, the lifecycle of these products has ended at landfills or in incineration. This means that new raw materials have to be used again and again. In the case of polyester, this is valuable crude oil.”

Although fabric recycling technologies are improving, it is important to bear these current challenges in mind when you consider purchasing a garment of single or blended fibres. And quality is another important consideration here too.

The highest quality cotton products have fibres with a long staple length, Treehugger points out, which hold up well over time. “When you process old clothing to create new, you end up with chopped-up cotton fibres – variable and short – which doesn’t make for the softer cotton clothing we are used to”. Because short staple length cotton deteriorates much more quickly, poor quality cotton clothing can be much more difficult to recycle into new garments.

So choose quality and opt for single-fibre garments where possible, to ensure better recycling potential for your clothes.

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