Breakthrough in Textile Recycling: Separating Nylon from Cotton

Textile Recycling

A research team comprising material engineers at the University of Delaware has developed a method of chemical recycling to separate synthetic fibers like nylon from natural fibers such as cotton. The ‘textile recycling’ invention may revolutionize the process of recycling clothes.

Fashion and textile industries account for about 10% of global landfill waste. Most of such wastes are not recyclable, especially polyester, spandex, and nylon garments. These materials release microplastics into the environment and are challenging for municipal recycling facilities to manage.

Complexity of Mixed Fiber Garments

Among the major problems in textile recycling are blends of artificial fibers with cotton or wool, which combination makes it hard for such garments to be recycled using any traditional methods of recycling. 

Now, chemical engineer Erha Andini, who leads the research at the University of Delaware says innovative recycling procedures are needed. “We need a better way to recycle modern garments that are complex because we are never going to stop buying clothes,” Andini says.

Overview of the chemical full recycling process. Conversion of real mixed textile waste (polyester, cotton, spandex, and nylon) using MW-assisted glycolysis and solvent dissolution.

Credit: Science Advances (2024)

A team led by Andini has worked out a revolutionary process described in a new study published in Science Advances. In the process, a solvent breaks the chemical bonds in polyester and nylon—thereby distinguishing synthetic fibers from natural fibers. In this close-loop manner, such solvent-induced separation makes both kinds of fibers quite efficient for recycling. 

Efficiency and Cost Considerations

This process, therefore, becomes cost-effective and energy-efficient compared with traditional techniques of activation with the aid of microwave energy to activate the solvent. However, challenges remain. Some of these recycled artificial fibers could be too degraded for additional use, thereby lowering the value of the reclaimed material. Another significant factor is the price of the solvent.

Indeed, Andini has been awarded for her work in entrepreneurship. She knows a way to commercialize this revolutionary recycling process by perceiving a future whereby lean components from recycled garments may be spun back into yarn for the production of new clothes.

Future Orientations and Challenges

Looking forward to the future, Andini is optimistic about their research. “Once we can extract pure components from each part, we can spin them back into yarn and make clothes again,” Andini says. There may be surely some financial hurdles to overcome, but the steely determination of Andini and her team members is half the battle for turning their dream into action.

The discovery of a method at the University of Delaware infuses vast hope for a solution to the challenges of textile waste. Separating synthetic fibers from natural fibers opens wide the doorway to more sustainable and effective means of clothing recycling. With more efforts dedicated to refining and commercializing such a process, the more it inches up to realize a closed-loop system in textile recycling.

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