Have you heard the news? The textile industry is abuzz with a miraculous new fibre. Lenzing, a company well-known and respected for its sustainable innovations, has just launched a new product combining their groundbreaking wood-based fibre, Tencel, and cotton waste fibre. Known as the “Next Generation Tencel Fibre”, it is being heralded as the most eco-friendly fibre on the planet. This is a huge development for the environment and responsible design around the world.
Why We Need Recycled Waste Cotton
Let’s explore what makes recycled cotton, in my opinion, worthy of such accolades. Cotton is possibly the world’s most prevalent natural fibre for manufacturing clothing and other textiles. As a result, millions of tons of cotton end up in landfill every year in the form of scraps, old stock, worn out clothing and so on. Granted, people are becoming more aware of where their clothing goes at the end of its life-cycle and making better choices about how they get rid of it, but it isn’t enough. Recycling cotton would diminish waste and reduce the strain that the fashion industry puts on resources, including not just cotton but water, land, pesticides and chemicals as well. It would also solve availability issues as more and more land is needed to feed the world’s growing population.
This is a big reason why recycled cotton is on everyone’s radar, including mine, and Lenzing isn’t the first company to forge new ground. In June of 2014, a collaboration of Swedish companies released the world’s first garment made entirely from recycled cotton. Though not as sustainable (the process uses a great deal of heavy metals), it was a noteworthy step in the right direction.
Though many have tried, few have succeeded at recycling cotton efficiently. Before old material can be turned into something new, it must be ground into tiny bits and reanimated as raw material. Unfortunately, this process is notorious for creating a product of low quality. Have you experienced raw, recycled cotton? It is typically fragile, rough, not comfortable or durable enough for repeated wear and it’s therefore difficult to use a large quantity of recycled cotton in a single garment. This means that it generally needs to be mixed with other types of fibres.
The Progress So Far: Recycled Cotton Denim
For the reasons outlined in “the challenge” above, Levi’s has historically struggled to include more than 20% recycled cotton in their denim. Fortunately, thanks to new developments, they have recently created a pair of jeans from 100% recycled cotton. Their biggest challenge was the fact that recycled denim clothing includes so many different elements: thread, zippers, and even synthetic pockets. Removing each element was too time consuming to even consider. For Levis, the solution was a new process that dissolves and separates the materials for reuse. This results in a recycled cotton denim that is strong and attractive; it has also reignited interest in other recycled cotton fabrics.
The Impossibility Of Recycled T-shirts
Denim is one thing, but the soft cotton of your favourite t-shirt is quite another. T-shirts are the cornerstone of trendy fast fashion. But by the time it is ready to be recycled, this type of material is too thin and too stretched to make it useful for creating new fabric. To solve this problem, recycled t-shirts are made with industrial cotton scraps supplemented with generous amounts of recycled polyester, a material that is better suited for reuse. All this recycling is great, but it still leaves heaps of cotton fabric in the landfill, and once the fibres have been blended, it makes the process of a second recycle near to impossible.
The Recycled Cotton Solution
This is where Tencel’s biggest and most noteworthy benefit comes into play. Unlike ordinary cotton fibres, the new Tencel fibre is strong enough to be recycled directly into new fashions after the consumer is done with it. Lenzing’s breakthrough is changing the game by closing the circuit and reducing the wastefulness of the fashion industry.
If managed correctly, these fibres have the potential to allow manufactures to create new products from old, greatly reducing the strain on natural resources and the environment. Now that’s something worth celebrating!
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