What Makes Recycled Fabric? 

By Audrey Stanton

In recent years there has been a huge rise in the use of recycled fabrics and textiles. Many clothing brands are making an effort to include recycled materials in their garments and collections. While we are starting to see these fabrics more, it is not always clear how they came to be. What makes up recycled fabric?

Textile Recycling 

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Textile recycling refers to the process of recycling any textile– clothing or otherwise– into new material. The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the average person throws away over 36 kilograms of clothing every year. Textile recycling consists of taking donated textiles, collecting them, sorting them, and sending them to the proper facilities.

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“Pre-consumer” donated textiles mean scraps from various companies’ production processes. Categorized as “post-consumer,” other materials consist of clothing or other textiles which have already been used. All of these materials go through the same general process, however, some textiles are more difficult to recycle than others. In addition, not all post-consumer clothing recycles back into the fabric for garments. In Canada, about 35% of donated clothing is made into industrial rags. 

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When textiles reach a recycling facility they go through sorting by material (like natural fabrics vs. synthetics) and then color. Afterwards, the textiles are torn into pieces, cleaned, and spun into the new fiber with other like material. This system slightly varies depending on the end product, however, this is the basic operation. While there are not many textile recycling facilities around the world currently, hopefully, that will change as sustainable fashion grows. 

Recycled Polyester 

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Recycled polyester is the product of a more involved process than recycled fabrics made from natural materials (such as cotton). This textile consists of old recycled plastic instead of new petroleum. In most cases, recycled polyester is made from recycled plastic water bottles. Facility workers break down old bottles into small plastic pieces, melt them, and then spin them into yarn. This process is not exactly the same because different companies have slightly different systems. However, the overall order of operations remains the same.

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Many say the benefits of using recycled polyester is that it lowers the demand for “virgin” polyester. Recycled polyester creates 75% less CO2 emissions than virgin polyester. Another positive aspect is keeping the plastic out of landfills and oceans. Many recycled polyester because of its durable quality which comes without a large carbon footprint. On the other hand, some argue that we shouldn’t be using plastic at all, recycled or otherwise. Critics point out that garments made out of recycled polyester release microplastics into waterways and eventually our oceans when washed. Is recycled plastic really better? It’s hard to say. Nevertheless, there are many brands using this textile and focused on its positive properties rather than its drawbacks. 

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