The power of recycled cotton: everything you need to know
In an increasingly conscious world where sustainability is more and more important, recycled materials are gaining ground in almost every industry. In the textile sector, recycled cotton has become a promising alternative to traditional cotton production, reducing textile waste and conserving natural resources. In this article, we will explore in detail the world of recycled cotton and how it is revolutionising the textile industry in an environmentally friendly way. Dive into the fascinating journey of recycled cotton and discover why it is a smart and conscious choice.
The environmental impact of traditional cotton production
Traditional cotton production has a significant impact on the environment. Its cultivation requires large amounts of water, pesticides and chemical fertilisers and causes water pollution and soil degradation. It should also be noted that much of the world's cotton is grown in countries with poorly developed labour policies, so it is often harvested and processed under precarious conditions.
In addition, the process of manufacturing textiles from conventional cotton consumes a great deal of energy and emits greenhouse gases. An estimated 3,000 litres of water and 3.87 kgCO2 are emitted into the atmosphere to produce a single T-shirt from conventionally grown cotton.
Benefits of using recycled cotton
The use of recycled cotton offers a number of environmental benefits that have a direct impact on businesses and consumers.
Firstly, it reduces the amount of waste generated by the textile industry, thereby reducing the amount of waste that ends up in landfills or incinerators. This saves land available for other uses and saves a large amount of tonnes of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere from the burning of such waste.
On the other hand, it avoids using additional resources for the cultivation of new cotton plantations. This means a significant saving of water and arable land and a reduction in the use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers, which has a positive impact on human health and the health of the ecosystem.
The raw material: pre-consumer and post-consumer recycled cotton
To obtain recycled cotton we need the raw material: all kinds of waste garments, fabrics, textiles or other textile materials. These, depending on their origin, can be of two types:
- Pre-consumer recycled cotton: it comes from scraps, fabric remnants and other textile waste produced in the manufacture of textile articles and garments. It is important to note that this category is composed solely and exclusively of unusable and unusable factory waste, which would otherwise end up in landfills or incinerators.
- Post-consumer recycled cotton: this comes from clothing, household textiles and other textile articles that have reached the end of their useful life and are not reusable, have been discarded and their only alternative to recycling would be landfill. For the collection of this type of waste there are various collection initiatives as well as specialised containers.
The cotton recycling process
Once the raw material is available, the recycling process begins. The first step is to sort the different fabrics and garments by material and colour. Once this is done, non-textile materials such as buttons, zips and other ornaments are removed from the garments by hand or by specialised machinery. The fabrics and garments are then cut into smaller pieces using an industrial guillotine.These remnants are progressively shredded by mechanical shredding processes into smaller and smaller fibres until the right size yarns are obtained.
Once the fibres of the right size have been obtained, they go on to the carding process. In this stage the fibres are interlaced, separated and interlaced again. In this way the fibres are aligned and combed to become textile fleece cloth. Finally, we move on to the spinning process, in which, from mechanical twisting procedures applied to the fleece cloth, we obtain the balls of yarn ready for the manufacture of fabrics and textiles with which garments, bed linen and other textile products can be made.
In the case of mixed fabrics composed of cotton mixed with other fibres, there are processes using chemical treatment to eliminate impurities from other materials and obtain pure and clean cotton fibres. These processes make the recycling process more difficult and costly, which makes recycling less profitable. In addition, there are few textile recycling centres in the world that have this technology and carry out such treatment.
Quality of recycled cotton
After subjecting cotton fabrics to the recycling process, the fibres obtained are shorter than those obtained in the production of new cotton from cultivation. If we were to use only these recycled (shorter) fibres for the production of new yarn, the resulting yarn would break more easily when subjected to some kind of stress. To solve this problem, recycled cotton fibres are often blended with longer fibres of other materials to make a yarn with good strength and quality. The most common materials currently used for blending with recycled cotton can also be recycled materials, such as acrylics from recycled plastic bottles, or new virgin materials such as cotton, wool or linen.
In terms of quality, fabrics made from recycled cotton can have the same appearance and softness as those made from non-recycled cotton. This means that products made from recycled cotton do not have to compromise on quality or style, making them an attractive option for sustainability-conscious consumers.
Applications of recycled cotton
Due to its versatility, recycled cotton has a wide range of applications in the textile industry. On the one hand, it is suitable for use in the fashion industry for the manufacture of garments such as T-shirts, trousers or dresses, and in the decoration industry for the manufacture of home textiles such as towels, blankets or curtains.
On the other hand, depending on the level of purity and quality of recycled cotton, we can find it in different industries beyond fashion and household, for example in the manufacture of absorbent products such as nappies and feminine hygiene products, or in the manufacture of industrial products such as filters, soundproofing boards, insulating panels for construction or packaging material.
Innovations and challenges in recycled cotton technology
Despite the many benefits of using recycled cotton, there is still a long way to go to ensure that the majority of cotton textiles are recycled rather than discarded. The main challenges to large-scale cotton recycling are lack of infrastructure and technological innovation.
According to the McKinsey report 'Scaling textile recycling in Europe-turning waste into value', less than 1% of textile waste is currently recycled in Europe for the production of new fibres. While this is largely due to a lack of necessary infrastructure, it is argued that recycling for new fibre production at scale could be achieved by 2030 by creating a new and sustainable circular industry in Europe.
In terms of technological innovation, new methods and processes are being developed to improve the efficiency and quality of recycled cotton. For example, new chemical decomposition techniques are being investigated to obtain purer and cleaner recycled cotton fibres, more efficient mechanical shredding methods to obtain higher quality cotton fibres or sorting processes that allow larger volumes of waste to be treated in more efficient ways.
Both increased infrastructure and innovations in cotton recycling process technology are essential to increase the scale of production and thus improve the long-term technical and economic viability of recycled cotton, which would facilitate its mass use in the fashion and home textile industries.
As the demand for sustainable products increases, it is important that consumers are aware of the options available and make informed choices when making their purchases. By purchasing products made from recycled cotton, we contribute to the reduction of waste and the conservation of ecosystems and natural resources. In addition, by supporting companies and brands that are committed to sustainability and the use of recycled materials, consumers send a clear message to the textile industry that sustainability is a priority. Choosing durable, quality products encourages more conscious and responsible consumption.
Although its use is still limited, textile and cotton recycling is a powerful and growing tool that is expected to evolve and gain momentum in the coming years due to demand from manufacturers and consumers. As we have seen above, improved technology and increased infrastructures will substantially improve the technical and economic viability of textile and cotton recycling at scale for the production of new fibres.
At Blankets Of The World we are committed to the use of 100% recycled materials made in Europe for the manufacture of our products, thus promoting the circular economy, sustainability in the textile industry and the manufacture of quality products made under fair and dignified working conditions.