The Science of Making Old Clothes New Again

By Tasha Lewis
two woman thread textiles into a recycling machine

Typically, people associate recycling with materials like paper, plastic, glass and aluminum.

 But did you know the average person discards 80 pounds of clothes and textile accessories per year? Even more eye opening to us at the Fiber Science & Apparel Design department at Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology was the stat that only 15% of those discarded textiles are being recycled.

We saw a huge opportunity and, backed by a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2014, set out to develop an effective production process for utilizing post-consumer textile waste. We conducted considerable research, working side by side with a factory in Haiti that deconstructs used textiles in order to create new garments. We began refining their processes and finding ways to recycle a higher percentage of the textiles they received. But, as promising as our progress in this area was, we hit a snag. Our funding ran out – until now.

Last week, our work was jump-started when we were among five leading research and academic institutions awarded a combined $2.84 million in grants to create new processes, ideas and jobs to further America’s growing U.S. manufacturing footprint. The grant is part of Walmart’s U.S. Manufacturing Innovation Fund and represents the latest milestone in the retailer’s $250 billion commitment to domestic manufacturing.

So the push to not only begin to close the loop in the textile supply chain, but to find ways to significantly reduce energy and water consumption in the process, is again under way. We’ve already helped develop ways for post-consumer textiles to be turned into such items as bow ties, purses and even polyester hang tags. But we see opportunities to utilize more material in the production of pillows, various stuffings and more.

One of the biggest hurdles to closing the loop is lack of process for separating blended fabrics. Cotton-polyester blends, for example, are great for creating wrinkle-free shirts but, in order to recycle the material, the fibers need to be separated back out. Our designers and fiber scientists are committed to developing a process that can accommodate these blended fabrics, along with ways to turn materials into such items as decorative vases and bowls, particle board and other sustainable composites.

Due, in part, to this grant, we’re able to focus our attention on developing the equipment and the processes to make these kinds of things happen. There’s huge opportunity out there. The real game changer will be figuring out how to bring something like this to scale. And we’re getting there, one step at a time.