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What Is Recycled Cotton Fabric?

Sustainability continues to be at the forefront of product decisions, brand initiatives, and strategic planning in the textile industry. The use of recycled materials, including recycled cotton, is a growing topic of interest within the sustainability umbrella.

Recycled cotton is not a new concept to the textile and apparel market, but as manufacturers, brands, and retailers continue to evaluate their supply chain footprint, the interest in recycled cotton has grown. We often think about recycling plastic, cardboard and glass, but less so cotton.

The primary choice of fabric for clothing worldwide, cotton production is environmentally intensive, particularly on water supplies. In fact, cotton production can be attributed to the disappearance of nearly a whole sea! Other major issues stemming from cotton production include the use of polluting pesticides and chemicals to protect crops and land clearance. As global consumption increases, exacerbated by the rise of fast fashion, more and more environments are being irrevocably damaged as a result. It’s clear something has to change.

As consumers, there are a number of approaches that can be taken to reduce the amount of cotton used in our lives. One is simply buying fewer, better quality clothes and cotton products, buying second-hand, or repurposing. Another is buying items made from organic cotton that’s grown without the use of harmful chemicals or pesticides. A third is buying items made from recycled cotton. Recycled cotton can be generally defined as converting cotton fabric into cotton fibre that can be reused in textile products. This allows the item to find a new purpose as something else, diverting it away from landfills and incinerators.

FAQs

Certified organic cotton is cotton fiber that has been grown without pesticides and fertilizers, through a process that preserves biodiversity, biological cycles and soil well-being. The world’s leading producers of organic cotton are India, China and Turkey.

Even taking into account that, although the process of cultivation of organic cotton is “cleaner” as it does not use chemical additives in its fertilization and fumigation, both this crop and the conventional cotton and its harvesting process are intensive in the use of water and energy.

Sources of recycled cotton fall into two main categories:

  • Post-industrial/pre-consumer
  • Excess material from the production of yarn, fabrics and textile products
  • Post-consumer
  • Used garments
  • Upholstery
  • Towels
  • Household items

Recycled cotton is collected from industry or consumer waste. Items are first separated by type and colour, then shredded by a machine into smaller pieces and further into crude fibre. It can then be respun back into yarn for reuse and given a new life as another product.

The process of shredding the fabric into its cruder forms is quite stressful. This compromises the quality of the new fibre, making it shorter and harder to spin. Consequently, the new fibres are blended with other virgin materials, such as plastic or cotton, to improve strength and make them suitable for reuse.

Global Recycled Standard (GRS) - international, voluntary, full product standard that sets requirements for third-party certification of Recycled Content, chain of custody, social and environmental practices, and chemical restrictions. The goal of the GRS is to increase the use of Recycled materials in products and reduce/eliminate the harm caused by its production.

Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) is the world’s leading certification standard for organic textiles including both ecological and social criteria. GOTS covers every step in the production process from the fibre to the finished garment.

Whilst organic cotton farming uses no synthetic agricultural chemicals, such as fertilizers or pesticides, and is certainly an improvement over conventional methods, it doesn’t tackle the issue that farming cotton is highly water-intensive and still damages eco-hydrology.

What Is Recycled Cotton?

Recycled cotton can be generally defined as converting cotton fabric into cotton fiber that can be reused in textile products. Recycled cotton is also commonly referred to as regenerated cotton, reclaimed cotton, or shoddy. Recycled content includes recycled raw material, as well as used, reconditioned, and re-manufactured components. Textile recycling is generated from two primary sources:

  • Pre-consumer: includes scraps created by yarn and fabric by-products
  • Post-consumer: includes garments, upholstery, towels, household items to be repurposed

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The largest volume of recycled cotton sources is produced through pre-consumer waste, such as cutting scraps. Post-consumer waste is more difficult to sort through due to various color shades, fabric blends, and it is generally a more labor-intensive process.

Process To Turn Fabric Back Into Fiber

The majority of recycled cotton is claimed through mechanical recycling. First, fabrics and materials are sorted by color. After sorting, the fabrics are run through a machine that shreds the fabric into yarn and further into raw fiber. This process is harsh and puts a great deal of strain on the fiber. It is not uncommon for fibers to break and entangle during shredding. The raw fiber is then spun back into yarns for reuse in other products. The quality of recycled fiber will never have quality values equal to the original fiber. Specifically, fiber length and length uniformity will be impacted, which will limit the end-use application

Advantages And Challenges Of Recycled Cotton

We list the benefits and also the challenges that arise with the use of recycled cotton.

Benefits

It has the potential to greatly reduce water and energy consumption in the fashion industry. The amount of water needed is less than the amount used to grow and generate virgin cotton. Many products are diverted from what would be their inevitable and ultimate destination, landfills. Recycled cotton can be given new life in many different elements, simple to use or with a low level of complexity, such as insulation, mop heads, cleaning rags, padding, etc.

  • Recycled cotton can find new life in many different low-grade products such as insulation, mop heads, rags, and stuffing.
  • The process of recycling can divert many products from landfills. According to the Council for Textile Recycling, annual textile waste is estimated to equal 25 billion pounds.
  • The amount of energy, water, and dye use is reduced from using a product that has already been processed. The savings are achieved by offsetting the production of new materials. Since recycled cotton yarns most commonly are sourced from pre-consumer textile scraps that are sorted by color, the yarns are already dyed.
  • The CO2 and fossil fuel emission savings can be partially offset by using existing materials. However, the collection, processing, and shipping of cotton scraps or clothing can reduce or neutralize some of these savings.

Challenges

The final composition of the fabric containing recycled cotton will depend on its final use. And according to this, it must be mixed with another fiber (e.g. polyester) to improve it as the process affects the properties of the fiber, such as length, uniformity and resistance. It cannot be recycled continuously. The test and trial instruments are specified for ginned, virgin cotton. Then, the test results can be biased due to the difference in packaging and orientation of the fiber. The possibility of contamination with other fibers is much greater for regenerated cotton. Savings in CO2 emissions and fossil fuels can be partially offset by the use of existing materials. However, the collection, processing, and shipping of fabric or clothing scraps for recycling can reduce or neutralize in whole or in part some of these savings.

  • Cotton must be blended with other fibers to be made into new yarn for strength and durability, and therefore cannot continuously be recycled.
  • The content of recycled cotton will depend on the end-use application. Any amount of recycled product will impact the yarn and fabric properties such as evenness, strength, and uniformity.
  • Recycled yarn cost is generally higher than standard, virgin cotton yarn costs, and could possibly be cost-prohibitive.
  • Testing instruments are made for ginned, virgin cotton. Sometimes, testing results can be skewed due to the difference in fiber packing and orientation.
  • The risk of contamination by other fibers is much higher for recycled cotton. Stitching, sewing thread, small amounts of spandex should all be taken into account when establishing the recycled supply chain.

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Industry And Fashion Brands Efforts To Recycle.

Today, there are many globally recognized fashion brand recycling initiatives that have projects within their own stores and shopping centers. Many others encourage consumers to bring their used clothing to be reused-recycled. Some of these projects include consumer benefits, such as coupons for discounts or points for future purchases.

Trends In Recycled Cotton And Organic Cotton.

As the sustainability conversation continues to move toward a greater need to improve the shelf life of garments and fashion accessories rather than promoting a disposable business model, companies should consider the use of virgin cotton and promote its natural and sustainable benefits.

Recycled cotton is an excellent option for reducing manufacturing textile waste and reusing it in lower quality products or mixing it with other fibers and reusing it in fashion articles. There are still challenges to be overcome for end uses, especially in the garment market.

Recycled cotton has its niche for certain end uses, but the challenges posed by reducing the length and quality of recycled fiber can cause problems during production and to the end consumer. In addition, once garments are recycled, they cannot continue to be recycled unlimitedly due to the fiber separation process that weakens it; that is, recycled fabrics cannot be infinitely recycled.

How To Care For Recycled Cotton Fabrics

Taking good care of your clothes is one of the best ways to live more sustainably. Recycled cotton fabrics are easy to care for and wash. But make sure to avoid common mistakes to preserve their longevity. Extend the life of your clothes and the time you can wear them by taking good care of them. It limits pressure on natural resources, reduces waste, pollution, and emissions.

Washing

To save water, energy, and preserve the quality of your garment, it's best to wash clothes made of recycled cotton in cold temperatures. You can place them in the washing machine but with a temperature lower than 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). Don't use a strong detergent and make sure the washing speed doesn't exceed 600 revolutions per minute.

Drying

The more sustainable way of drying your clothes is to hang them to dry. Place them on a line in fresh air rather than using a dryer. It preserves the quality of your garments and saves an enormous amount of energy, carbon emissions, and money.

Ironing

Iron your clothes only when it's necessary. Unfortunately, recycled cotton wrinkles easily. If you decide to iron a garment, select the lowest temperature possible to prevent any damage to textile fabrics.

Environmental Impact Of Recycled Cotton

Cotton is the most widespread profitable non-food crop globally. About half of all textiles contain cotton. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates the global cotton production to be around 30.3 million tons annually. However, most cotton production methods are unsustainable.

Regular cotton farming accounts for 16% of all insecticides, 7% of all herbicides, 4% of all nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizers worldwide, as reported by the Global Fashion Agenda. Cotton farmers use highly toxic synthetic chemicals that have harmful effects on human health and ecosystems. They contaminate soils, water sources, and local communities. Europe and the United-States apply usage restrictions to some hazardous chemicals used in cotton farming. But in many East-Asian countries, their agricultural use continues.

Using recycled cotton instead of regular cotton leads to significant savings of natural resources and reduces pollution from agriculture. It extends the lifespan of already existing fibers and reduces the environmental impact of textile production. By making clothes with recycled cotton, manufacturers can potentially save a lot of carbon dioxide emissions, chemicals, water, and energy, compared to using conventional cotton. Recycled cotton is a healthy, safe, and sustainable material made from renewable resources, often sourced from manufacturers with many sustainability practices.

For brands, recycled cotton promotes the responsible use of resources and demonstrates high environmental performance. Raw material sourcing, extraction, and textile fabrication play a massive role in the environmental impact of fashion. Using sustainable materials such as recycled cotton reduces the harm caused by apparel production.

cotton fabric

Alternative To Recycled Cotton

The research team from Fraunhofer IAP makes recycling clothing made of cotton easy. The team is working on behalf of Renewcell or re:newcell, a circular fashion company based in Sweden specialized in sustainable clothing. Renewcell is the fashion company behind Circulose, a patented new material made from cellulosic textile waste.

The innovative process can transform old cotton clothing into new viscose filaments to create garments. It could make textile production more sustainable and environmentally friendly. The process makes it possible to recycle into viscose all kinds of garments, including jeans, shirts, tees, dresses, sweaters, and more. It's suitable for large-scale production.

The scientists recently succeeded for the first time in processing cellulose from recycled cotton into viscose fiber, a regenerated cellulosic fiber similar to lyocell, acetate, and modal. The semi-synthetic fiber made from cotton waste could help the fashion industry become more inclusive, regenerative, and circular. After being dissolved into a viscous solution, new fibers are produced by spinning. The result is a 100% cellulosic fiber yarn that can compete with other types of cellulosic fibers. Its production can be environmentally friendly if it uses closed-loop processes that can recover and reuse almost all water and chemicals used during manufacturing.

Bottom Line

It is not one type of cotton or the other but one plus the other. Further progress must be made in terms of cotton being grown under conditions that are ethical, responsible, favorable to workers and the environment and in R&D&I in order to obtain the best possible results in the recycling process. Both alternatives are a solution and make a great contribution of value to a fashion industry that seeks to be (and must be) more sustainable and socially responsible.

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