A Message to the Fashion Industry: Here’s Why You Need to Ditch Cotton NOW if you want a Circular Economy

Why Cotton Is Incompatible with the Idea of the “Circular Economy”

The Fashion Industry needs to move away from Cotton if they want to enable a Circular Economy

There has been a lot of hype recently in the Fashion World about the idea of a Circular Economy.

Hopefully, I can break down in easy terms why anybody involved in the fashion industry needs to be ditching Cotton right now – and looking at alternatives in order to make this happen.

This is all before we get to the environmental and social problems linked to Cotton production — which have been covered extensively by others . All of this is based on simple scientific truths about how Cotton is able to be recycled.

There will be a little bit of science involved, but trust me – it’s necessary to explain what the situation is.


The Problem

We have a growing mountain of textile waste which is ripe for exploitation as a new resource. If we can recycle our old clothes to be turned into new ones, we end up with a recycling “circle” where old stuff is turned into new stuff again.

A Circular Economy for Textiles and Fashion in Action – Courtesy of Ecouterre/Worn Again

However, at the moment, it is not possible to recycle cotton or mixed textile materials by simple “mechanical” recycling whilst keeping the fibre strength needed to make yarn as good as ‘new’ Cotton. This is because the fibres end up being “chopped up” and twisted back together — not a long term sustainable solution! This problem gets compounded ever more when we are talking about mixed textile waste such as Polyester and Cotton blends . Recycling this stuff using current methods is almost impossible!

What is a “Fibre”? And what actually ‘is’ Cotton?

What is a “fibre” exactly? Well, it’s just a long, thin, string-like piece of material, made of some “stuff”. This “stuff” is nearly always a polymer — a chemical which is basically a long “chain” of the same molecule joined together by a “link”.

Polymer “Chains”. Imagine in this case the each ring is a molecule which is “linked” together with another in a long chain.

Cotton is made of cellulose, or a long chain of glucose molecules joined together. Some of these “chains” can be very long, but they are so small you would not be able to see them with the naked eye.

Many of these chains “stick” together in bundles and these bundles stick together with other bundles — until we get to an actual “fibre” that we can see and touch.

Cellulose polymer “chains” bundling together to make “fibres”

Cellulose is also the main component of paper, which we get from trees.

Why Cotton and Cellulose are not necessarily the same thing — and why this is crucially important

Without going into the science, there are two types of Cellulose — (1) and (2). The first is the type that most of us know — it comes from Nature, mostly from Cotton and Trees. The second type is when we take the stuff from Nature and treat it in some way to make a new product.

This is normally achieved using a solvent (a liquid that dissolves something or makes it into a solution) or using a chemical reaction to achieve the same thing.

Some people may know Cellophane, the packaging material. If you are in the fashion world, you may know fibres such as Viscose, Tencel, Lyocell, Modal and others. There are all forms of this second type of cellulose.

Cellulose from Nature (1) has the specific physical structure and characteristics of a natural material. Cellulose (2) does not. Its a man-made alteration of the same basic material (on a chemical level) with different physical properties. This is the kind of material that we get when we recycle cotton. Hang on – I will explain why.

Cotton (cellulose) fibres under an Electron Microscope showing their “Natural” structure. This is not same as a fibre made from recycled cotton waste – it’s a different product entirely.

How Can We Recycle Cotton Then?

What we need to do, is to make the cellulose ‘in’ Cotton back into long, strong, stringy fibres again.

Instead of chopping the fibres up into small pieces and decreasing their strength, we can break the fibres apart at the molecular level  and put them together. We need to do this to be able to make long, strong and stable strings or ‘fibres’ again. We first need to “dissolve” it to make a “solution”. 

This is done by using a solvent or a chemical reaction to “dissolve” the cellulose and make it into a very viscous, sticky liquid (which usually looks like honey). This is then forced through tiny holes in a machine as part of a fibre ‘spinning’ process. Think of making spaghetti — forcing a mass of stuff through small holes to make long strings. The other stuff is washed away leaving a newly made cellulose or “cellulosic” fibre.

After forcing the material through small holes, we end up like this “spaghetti” – the polymer chain “spaghettis” are stuck together in a bundle, giving them the strength to form a fibre.

 

This approach  is much better as the individual polymer molecules become “re-aligned” and “stick together” in the process of making this new fibre. This cannot happen if you are just chopping fibres mechanically, separating them, and twisting them back together again.

This is how we can convert natural cellulose (1) (from Waste Cotton or Wood Pulp) into what we call ‘regenerated’ cellulose (2) fibres. These are known as Rayons, although this term is used less often these days.

To recycle these fibres, we can do the whole thing again. Thus, we end up with a circular economy — all the stuff is recycled in a loop, round and round again.

What does this mean for the Circular Economy that everyone is talking about?

This means that, in a ‘circular economy’, Cotton cellulose (1) from waste textile feedstocks will be continually transformed into Regenerated cellulose (2) fibres (or Rayon).

Therefore: once we “recycle” Cotton — it is no longer Cotton! It’s will end up as another kind of cellulosic fibre.

Every process claiming to recycle Cotton or Cotton from Mixed Textile waste at the moment (that is not mechanical recycling) is doing some variation of this.

By “Recycling” Cotton the cotton, we are turning it into a new kind of Fibre – “Regenerated” Cellulose 2 (Rayons such as Viscose, Modal, Lyocell). Once we have done this once, we can recycle the resulting fibres again.

So what does this ACTUALLY mean for our clothes?

And now, we get to the crux of the issue — if you are someone in the fashion industry:

To make the circular economy for fashion a reality — the industry needs to be exploring NOW the use of cellulosic fibres (such as Viscose, Lyocell, Modal, Tencel, Cupro and new fibres in development such as Ioncell) as a replacement for Cotton in textiles and garments.

If we are not doing this, then the fashion industry can never reach a truly circular model. It’s a simple as that.


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Hi, my name is Dr. Ashley Holding. I’m a scientist and specialist in the field of textile recycling. At the moment I am working as a Consultant and Research Scientist with Worn Again, developing a revolutionary new process to separate and recycle mixed textile waste.

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