Sustainability continues to be at the forefront of product decisions, brand initiatives, and strategic planning in the textile industry. The use of recycled materials, including recycled cotton, is a growing topic of interest within the sustainability umbrella. Recycled cotton is not a new concept to the textile and apparel market, but as manufacturers, brands and retailers continue to evaluate their supply chain footprint, the interest in recycled cotton has grown.
What is recycled cotton?
Recycled cotton can be generally defined as converting cotton fabric into cotton fibre that can be reused in textile products. Recycled cotton is also commonly referred to as regenerated cotton, reclaimed cotton or shoddy. Recycled content includes recycled raw material, as well as used, reconditioned, and remanufactured components. Textile recycling is generated from two primary sources:
- Pre-consumer: Includes scraps created by yarn and fabric by-products
- Post-consumer: Includes garments, upholstery, towels, and household items to be repurposed.
The largest volume of recycled cotton sources is produced through pre-consumer waste, such as cutting scraps. Post-consumer waste is more difficult to sort through due to various colour shades, fabric blends, and it is generally a more labour-intensive process.
The process to turn fabric back into fibre
The majority of recycled cotton is claimed through mechanical recycling. First, fabrics and materials are sorted by colour. After sorting, the fabrics are run through a machine that shreds the fabric into yarn and further into raw fibre. This process is harsh and puts a great deal of strain on the fibre – it is not uncommon for fibres to break and entangle during shredding. The raw fiber is then spun back into yarns for reuse in other products. The quality of recycled fibre will never have quality values equal to the original fibre. Specifically, fibre length and length uniformity will be impacted, which will limit the enduse application.
Benefits & challenges to recycled cotton fibre
There can be many benefits with using recycled cotton, as well as some challenges.
- Recycled cotton can find new life in many different low grade products such as insulation, mop heads, rags, and stuffing
- The process of recycling can divert many products from landfills. According to the council for textile recycling, annual textile waste is estimated to equal 25 bn pounds
- The amount of energy, water, and dye use is reduced from using a product that has already been processed. The savings are achieved through offsetting production of new materials. Since recycled cotton yarns most commonly are sourced from pre-consumer textile scraps that are sorted by colour, the yarns are already dyed
- The CO2 and fossil fuel emission savings can be partially offset from using existing materials. However, the collection, processing and shipping of cotton scraps or clothing can reduce or neutralize some of these savings.
- Cotton must be blended with other fibres to be made into new yarn for strength and durability, and therefore cannot continuously be recycled
- The content of recycled cotton will depend on end-use application. Any amount of recycled product will impact the yarn and fabric properties such as evenness, strength, and uniformity
- Recycled yarn cost is generally higher than standard, virgin cotton yarn costs, and could possibly be cost-prohibitive
- Testing instruments are made for ginned, virgin cotton. Sometimes, testing results can be skewed due to the difference in fibre packing and orientation
- The risk of contamination by other fibers is much higher for recycled cotton. Stitching, sewing thread, small amounts of spandex should all be taken into account when establishing the recycled supply chain.
Cotton Incorporated’s Lifestyle Monitor™ research shows that consumers are seeking out recycled materials, but “recycled” does not necessarily equate to “sustainable” in a consumers’ mind. Research shows that 24 per cent of consumers are willing to pay more for clothing or home textiles that are labeled as “recycled”, and 32 per cent of consumers who plan on purchasing clothing or home textiles will look for “recycled” clothing; However, only 5 per cent of consumers believe that “Sustainable” = “Recycled.” Consumers place more value in clothing or products labeled as “100 per cent cotton,” “natural,” or “environmentally-friendly.”
Today, there are many recycling efforts by well-known brands that have launched initiatives within their stores. Most companies who encourage consumers to recycle their clothing allow clothes from any brand to be dropped off. Some of these initiatives include consumer benefits such as coupons or points towards future purchases.
How can you be a part of this effort?
As the conversation around sustainability continues to move toward a greater need of improving the life of garments rather than promoting a disposable business model, companies should consider using virgin cotton and promoting the sustainable, natural benefits. Recycled cotton is a great option for reducing textile waste and repurposing for lower grade products, but there are still challenges to overcome for end-uses, especially in the apparel market.
Recycled cotton has its place for certain end-uses, but the challenges with strength and quality reduction can cause issues during production and after the consumer takes the product home. Once garments are recycled, they cannot continue to be recycled due to the fibre separation process that weakens the fibres – recycled materials cannot be recycled infinitel.
Source: Cotton Incorporated