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Circularity is in Fashion: Recycled Cotton

Circularity is in Fashion: Recycled Cotton

Circularity is a key concept in the sustainability movement. In a circular system, once the useful life of a product is up, it is recycled back into the supply chain, diverting it from the landfill. Recycled cotton is one way of helping to create a more circular, and less wasteful, fashion industry.

Why wear cotton?

Cotton is one of the most popular fibers in the fashion industry – and for good reason! Cotton is soft and comfortable to wear. It’s also breathable, making it a great option for all climates. Cotton is extremely versatile; it can be made into everything from hard-wearing jeans to lightweight knit tops and everything in between.

The sustainability of cotton: a circular system

Even without the benefit of recycling technology, cotton is a relatively sustainable textile already. It is a natural fiber, created from the fluffy material surrounding the seeds of a cotton plant. Because cotton is made entirely from plants, it is completely biodegradable.

This helps to create a circular system – cotton starts out as a plant, growing in the soil, it is then processed into fabric and clothing, which are eventually returned to the earth, helping to create a rich soil filled with organic matter.

However, cotton production does have drawbacks. In conventional cotton operations, some farmers may apply large amounts of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Using products created from organic cotton can help to combat this issue.

But even organic cotton isn’t a cure-all for sustainability. Cotton is a thirsty crop and typically requires extensive irrigation, even when produced under organic farming methods. This is where recycled cotton comes in. Giving already-processed cotton a new life reduces the need for fresh cotton fibers, lowering the amount of overall cotton that needs to be grown and helping to conserve water and other resources.

What is recycled cotton?

Recycled cotton is cotton that has already been processed into a textile but was reused to make something new after it was disposed of, rather than heading for the landfill or incinerator. Recycled cotton is in direct contrast to “virgin cotton” – which is any cotton that has not been reused.

Recycled cotton can be made from textiles from two primary sources:

  • Pre-consumer waste
  • Post-consumer waste

Pre-consumer waste comes from the fabric and garment production process, rather than the end consumer. This cotton waste usually consists of yarn and fabric off-cuts left over from creating fabric or sewing together garments. Pre-consumer cotton waste may also include flawed yarn and fabric that never made it past the manufacturing plant. Most recycled cotton is made from pre-consumer waste since this type is easier to sort and work with because there is more consistency of colors and fiber compositions.

Post-consumer waste, in contrast, is made up of already produced items, such as garments, towels, and other household products. This type of cotton waste is more difficult to sort and recycle due to the wide range of different colors and fiber blends to sort through.

Origins of recycled cotton

Humans have likely been reusing items since the dawn of civilization, however the first documented evidence of recycling comes from ancient Egypt. In the First Egyptian Dynasty, scribes would erase what was written on papyrus and reuse that same papyrus for a new document.

The first evidence of recycling of a product by breaking it down and remaking it comes from Japan in the 9th century. In Japan, they developed a method of recycling paper very early on and it became a major part of their paper production process that still stands today. In 2020, the recovery rate of paper for recycling in Japan was 85%, which is quite high compared to the paper recycling rates for other countries.

In 1690 in Philadelphia, the first recycling plant for fabric, specifically linen and cotton, was opened. The Rittenhouse Mill turned old linen and cotton rags into paper that was used to print newspapers and Bibles. This mill continued to recycle cotton and linen for over a century, into the 1800s.

In 1813, the “shoddy process” of recycling old fabric into new yarn by shredding it and reweaving it was first invented. This started as a way to recycle wool fabrics, however fabric recycling and recycling in general continued to take off, becoming a more and more mainstream idea over the years.

How is recycled cotton fabric made?

Cotton is generally recycled through mechanical means, rather than chemical means. To recycle cotton, the fabrics and yarns are first sorted by color. Once sorted, the waste is run through stripping machines that shred the fabric and yarn into small pieces, then further break them down into raw cotton fibers. This process does put a lot of strain on the fibers, so can result in some fibers breaking into shorter lengths.

The shredded cotton fibers are then carded to straighten and smooth them out. At this point, any additional types of fibers can be added to the mix to form the desired blend. Because the shredding process can break some of the fibers, reducing strength and durability, a percentage of other types of fibers is sometimes added to improve the functionality of the finished fabric. The fibers are then spun into yarn. This recycled yarn can be used to knit or weave a brand-new fabric.

Is recycled cotton fabric a sustainable choice?

While virgin cotton is biodegradable and a relatively sustainable choice, especially when compared to nonbiodegradable synthetic fabrics that are produced with the use harsh chemicals, recycled cotton is an even more sustainable option.

Recycled cotton reduces the amount of water and chemical inputs needed to grow cotton plants, by lowering the need for virgin cotton. In addition, recycling cotton extends the life of the cotton fibers, helping to reduce carbon emissions and the amount of resources used in the production of cotton and cotton textiles.

At the end of the day, recycling cotton helps to keep these useful fibers out of the landfill or incinerator, giving them a longer useful life and reducing the impact of cotton production on the environment.

Fabric sourcing: how to make sure you’re buying recycled cotton

When choosing recycled fabric is a priority for you and your fashion brand, it’s important to ensure that whatever fabric you choose is truly made from recycled materials and was produced in a way that limits negative impacts on the environment.

Thankfully, there are third-party certifications that you can look for to ensure you’re getting an environmentally friendly, recycled textile. The two primary certifications to be aware of when it comes to recycled fabrics are: the RCS (Recycled Claim Standard) certification and the GRS (Global Recycled Standard) certification.

The goal of the RCS certification is to verify that a fabric does contain at least a percentage of recycled materials and that the labelled percentage is accurate. This can help you make an informed decision about a fabric, knowing that it truly does contain the amount of recycled materials that it claims.

The GRS certification takes the standards a bit further, not only verifying the percentage of recycled material, but requiring a higher percentage of recycled content than the RCS certification. In addition, the GRS ensures that fabrics receiving their stamp were produced using sustainable methods with the goal of reducing negative impacts on people and the environment.

Types of recycled cotton fabric

Recycled cotton can be used to make all the same types of fabric that virgin cotton can be used for. You will find an array of recycled cotton fabrics on the market, in all different colors and prints, from wovens to knits.

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Other methods of recycling cotton

While recycling cotton textiles into new fabrics is one way of reusing cotton and creating more circularity in the cotton industry, there are other ways of recycling cotton to further increase sustainability.

Cotton textile waste that is not suitable for reuse as new fabric can be turned into nonwoven textiles, such as wet wipes, construction materials, or filters.

Even other portions of the cotton plant, that are not useful for cotton fabric and textiles, can be put to good use in creative ways. For example, a company called Ecovative Design has used cotton burrs – leftover pieces of the cotton plant that can’t be used for making fabric – to create beautiful, biodegradable packaging materials.

Another example of using leftovers from cotton production comes from the company Archroma, which takes waste from cotton gins and uses it to create certain shades of their natural dyes. Archroma’s EarthColors® dyes are a more sustainable alternative to traditional petroleum-based dyes.

Any remaining portions of the cotton plant can be composted or turned into mulch, which helps to build the soil for the next crop. With a little ingenuity and a willingness to put in some effort, cotton production can become a truly circular and sustainable system.

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