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Raw materials and fiber types are part and parcel in driving the textiles industry’s transition to a circular economy. For circularity to be propelled into continuous action, perpetuating and extending the lifecycle of different materials and diverting from the “take-make-waste” mindset needs to be implemented at industry scale.
Inevitably, this means looking at one of the world’s most popular fibers – cotton and more specifically, recycled cotton. Despite comprising just 1% of all cotton sourcing according to Textile Exchange, recycled cotton has received growing interest from both the industry and from consumers seeking out fiber choices with a comparatively smaller environmental impact than conventional or virgin cotton.
Exploring the potentials of recycled cotton, Gülfem Oral, Global Business Development Manager, Fashion Ready-to-Wear sits down with us to demystify the technical challenges with possible steps the textile industry can take to increase the use of recycled content and accelerate circularity.
Q: What is recycled cotton and how does it compare to its conventional counterpart?
There are two ways of cotton recycling, chemical or mechanical, with most recycled cotton claimed through the later process. Its waste material can be derived from both pre- and post-consumer cotton waste, but a majority of recycled cotton sources usually stem from pre-consumer waste like cutting scraps left from traditional textile production. This is gathered, then sorted by color and composition to avoid the re-dyeing of materials before being mechanically processed with stripping machines back into smaller cotton fibers for reuse in textile products.
Q: How does it compare to its conventional counterpart?
Compared to conventional cotton, the production of mechanically-recycled cotton is much less resource-intensive. This is because the cotton fabrics that are collected for recycling will have already been dyed beforehand, thus avoiding dyeing most of the time and requiring less energy, water, or chemicals as they are renewed into textile products.  The process of recycling also diverts textile waste from ending up in landfills or being incinerated, which is important when considering the circular economy.
Q: What are some of the limitations or challenges associated with recycled cotton?
Inevitably, the recycled cotton fibers are made shorter, and therefore weaker, through manual shredding process. Due to this, recycled cotton has lower tensile strength and generally needs to be blended with stronger fibers for a higher-quality output.
Moreover, the actual recycling process is met with a couple challenges. Used garments need to be classified and sorted by color and material make-up. Other components such as labels, accessories, and buttons add another layer of sorting required.
Q: How are these challenges being addressed in order to popularize the use of recycled cotton?
The technical challenges of a fiber such as recycled cotton can be easily solved by pairing the fiber with a compatible blending partner. In the market, recycled cotton has commonly been blended with polyester or nylon, which have been associated with environmental risks like microplastic pollution. However, in a bid to reduce reliance on synthetics, manufacturers can consider alternatives such as TENCEL™ Lyocell, whose functional benefits make it a strong candidate for as a blending partner.
TENCEL™ branded lyocell fibers are highly compatible with recycled cotton owing to their high tenacity among other cellulose fibers, contributing to overall yarn strength and quality. As a blend partner, the fibers also help to address concerns of recycled cotton fibers’ coarser texture. TENCEL™ Lyocell is naturally soft and smooth to the touch so blending recycled cotton with TENCEL™ Lyocell can be used for textile applications of everyday woven, knitwear and even lounge and sportswear.
Due to their innovative closed-loop production process, TENCEL™ Lyocell also contributes to the overall circularity of recycled cotton products and hence offers a viable alternative to conventional polyester and nylon.
Q: How do we encourage the use of more recycled cotton in textiles and fashion?
According to McKinsey’s 2023 State of Fashion report, more than half of consumers anticipate buying more recycled clothes and therefore, there is tremendous reason to encourage its scaling. From a design standpoint, this means designing for recyclability so that garments can be recovered at its end-life and avoid becoming waste. Brands can reinforce collection or “Take Back” programs so materials are cycled back into manufacturing and product lifecycles are extended. Given the sheer size and reach of the fashion industry, encouraging large scale adoption of recycled materials will require collaboration across the brand, from fiber producers like Lenzing to manufacturers, designers, brands, and consumers.
 TENCEL™ Lyocell is known for its innovative closed loop production process. Wood pulp is transformed into cellulosic fibers, while more than 99.8% of the solvent are recovered and fed back into the loop, resulting in close-to-zero wastage. According to the Higg Materials Sustainability Index (Higg MSI), TENCEL™ Lyocell has a significantly lower environmental impact than generic lyocell in the categories of abiotic depletion of fossil fuels (up to 39%), global warming (up to 53%), water consumption (up to 69%) and eutrophication (up to 60%). Results based on LCA standards (ISO 14040/44) and available via Higg MSI (Version 3.6).