Pena: Textile waste recycling

I'M NO longer involved in the paper manufacturing process. However, I still receive through snail mail my regular magazine from Valmet, a leading supplier of paper-making machines and equipment. One article in the magazine caught my attention. It’s about Valmet supplying equipment to a company called Renewcell for their textile recycling plant in Sweden. It is the world’s first commercial-scale textile recycling plant.

The article says that Renewcell’s patented process can "upcycle" cellulosic textile waste such as cotton and viscose clothes (a semi-synthetic type of rayon fabric made from wood pulp that is used as a silk substitute) transforming them into dissolving pulp product called ‘Circulose.’ Upcycling means reusing discarded materials to create a product of higher quality or value than the original.

Renewcell boasts that using their breakthrough process powered by 100-percent renewable energy, they transform old clothes into a pristine natural material that needs no cotton fields, no oil, and no trees.

So how do they do it? They take in garments that can’t be resold to people because they are either they’re way too worn-out or hopelessly out of style. They prefer cotton clothes because they contain a lot of cellulose. The clothes are shredded, de-buttoned, de-zipped, de-colored and turned into a slurry.

Contaminants like plastic polyester are taken out. What remains is cellulose - the biodegradable organic polymer that cotton, trees and all green plants on earth are made out of. The slurry is dried to produce sheets of pure Circulose®. They package the sheets into bales and ship them to be made back into natural textile fibers.

This textile upcycling business will reduce the huge impact that the fashion industry has on the environment. According to the Geneva Environment Network (GEN), fashion production makes up 10 percent of humanity’s carbon emissions, dries up water sources, and pollutes rivers and streams. What’s more, 85 percent of all textiles go to the dump each year (UNECE, 2018), and washing some types of clothes sends a significant amount of microplastics into the ocean.

Consider these figures compiled by GEN: The equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second (UNEP, 2018); Approximately 60 percent of all materials used by the fashion industry are made from plastic (UNEP, 2019); Some 93 billion cubic meters of water – enough to meet the needs of five million people – is used by the fashion industry annually, contributing significantly to water scarcity in some regions (UNCTAD, 2020); Around 20 percent of industrial wastewater pollution worldwide originates from the fashion industry (WRI, 2017).

Some apparel companies are joining initiatives to cut back on textile pollution and grow cotton more sustainably. The United Nations launched an Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, which will coordinate efforts across agencies to make the fashion industry less harmful.


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