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‘Chemical recycling’: 15-minute reaction turns old clothes into useful molecules

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2024-07-05 13:00:10

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Researchers have developed a chemical-processing technique that can break down fabrics into reusable molecules, even when they contain a mixture of materials.

The process, outlined in a Science Advances paper on 3 July1, shows that chemical recycling can give old textiles a new lease of life. If scaled up, it could help to tackle the growing mountain of waste generated by the fashion industry, says study co-author Dionisios Vlachos, an engineer at the University of Delaware in Newark.

Estimates suggest than less than 1% of textiles are recycled, and nearly three-quarters of used garments end up incinerated or dumped into landfill. “A good third or more of the microplastics that end up in the ocean” come from clothing, says Vlachos. “Our ability to develop technology to be able to handle all this waste and remove them from the environment, landfills and the oceans is very important.”

Miriam Ribul, who researches sustainable materials at the UKRI Textiles Circularity Centre, says that although recycling should be regarded as a last resort after repairing and reusing old clothes, the industry would welcome “investment in these new processes and technologies to be able to scale up”.

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