Is recycled sustainable?
Have you heard lately of giant retailers putting bins in their stores to recuperate clothes? Do you know that less than one per cent of clothing is recycled to make new clothing? Customers are urged to donate "any clothes or home textiles that are no longer wanted or needed" so they can be "given a new purpose."
More often than not though, that new purpose doesn't mean being transformed into a new piece of clothing, but rather being resold — often in a country thousands of kilometers away from the point of sale. That's because recycling clothes into other textiles, particularly new clothes, is costly and difficult.
At Message Factory we take pride in using recycled materials as part of our fabric selection. When possible we try to use natural fabrics like organic cotton and Tencel but let’s face it…We need to get rid of our waste until our behavior changes and we consume less and differently. But, what are your really buying when you choose a garment made of recycled fabrics?
WHAT IS A RECYCLED FABRIC?
Textile recycling is the process by which old clothing and other textiles are recovered for reuse or material recovery. The importance of recycling textiles is increasingly being recognized.
Once collected, clothing is classified into three groups: reuse, rags, and fiber. Typically this is a manual sorting process that requires expertise in identifying various types of material.
For natural textiles like cotton, incoming items are sorted in terms of color. By segregating colors, the need for re-dying can be eliminated, reducing the need for pollutants and energy. After sorting, the fabrics are run through a machine that shreds the fabric into yarn and further into raw fiber. This process is harsh and puts a great deal of strain on the fiber – it is not uncommon for fibers to break and entangle during shredding. The raw fiber is then spun back into yarns for reuse in other products.
The recycling process works somewhat differently for synthetic textiles like polyester-based materials. In this case, the first thing is to remove zippers and buttons and then to cut the clothing into smaller pieces. Those shredded small fabrics are then granulated and shaped into pellets.
ABOUT RECYCLED COTTON
Once in landfills, natural fibers can take many years to decompose. They may release methane and CO2 gas into the atmosphere.
At Message Factory, before using new resources we are also looking to reduce our environmental footprint by recycling used fabrics. Recycled cotton doesn’t replace organic cotton. Recycled cotton can be generally defined as converting cotton fabric into cotton fiber that can be reused in textile products. Recycled cotton is also commonly referred to as reclaimed cotton. Recycled content includes recycled raw material, as well as used, reconditioned, and re-manufactured components. Since recycled cotton yarns most commonly are sourced from pre-consumer textile scraps that are sorted by color, the yarns are already dyed. The amount of energy and water is reduced from using a product that has already been processed.
Even if this new fabric is a little rough at a first touch, it will soften and already feel comfy after the first wash. Like all cottons, recycled cotton is very durable and will keep you fresh on nice summer days. Once garments are recycled, they cannot continue to be recycled due to the fiber separation process that weakens the fibers – recycled materials cannot be recycled infinitely. That is why it is important to reduce and change our behavior in terms of consumption. Recycling is not the ultimate solution.
IS RECYCLED POLYESTER CONSIDERED A SUSTAINABLE FABRIC?
Synthetic textiles like polyester are designed not to decompose. In the landfill, they may release toxic substances into groundwater and surrounding soil. Polyester is made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource, which in itself makes it an incredibly unsustainable material. In addition, the production process is energy-intensive, and the dyeing, in particular, requires high temperatures. The processing of petrochemicals results in large quantities of hazardous waste and the emissions can be irreversibly damaging to air, soil, and water. Polyester can take up to 200 years to break down and the wages of workers in garment factories can be as low as US$1-$3 a day.
Recycled polyester is simply polyester produced from recycled sources: plastic water bottles, industrial polyester waste, and even old garments. The process utilizes two methods, chemical and mechanical recycling. Chemical recycling involves reconstituting the fiber on a molecular level: by breaking down the source polyester to the monomer level, they can create new polymers that are indistinguishable from virgin polyester. This method is primarily used for dyed and finished polyester products.
Mechanical recycling uses clear PET bottles that are cleaned, chipped and then melted down and extruded into fiber. Recycled Polyester decreases our use of petroleum, keeps waste out of landfills, and lowers our overall carbon footprint. Some will also argue that the energy & water required in both transforming processes will offset the benefits of recycling. Today, only 3-10% of polyester fabric production is recycled. We agree that reducing our polyester consumption is the option for the future of the planet.
So is recycled sustainable? To be sustainable means to use processes that minimize negative environmental impacts. So is recycling doing that? We’ll let you answer. However, we believe that until our consuming behaviors change, recycled fabrics are a great solution to get rid of our current waste and to limit our consumption of new virgin fabrics.