Last-Ditch Clothes Recycling Effort: Nuke 'Em

Jul 10, 2024

Thought Question: What are some ways you could reduce your own amount of clothing waste?

Finished with that flannel? Done with those old jeans? If you care about clothing waste, you might be looking to recycle your rags into reusable riches. A research team at the University of Delaware could have a way to help.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) is an economic nonprofit. It says that the world tosses 92 million tons of clothing each year. Only about a half a percent is recycled. And the textile market is a major source of climate change. It emits 1.3 billion tons of greenhouse gases into the air each year. That's “more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined,” the EMF reports. 

To cut back on textile production and landfill waste, especially synthetic fibers, researchers have developed a new technique. It's one that can break down clothing at a chemical level. Those chemical building blocks can then be used to fashion new fabrics.

“The fashion industry is not always (clear) about what’s in their clothes,” Erha Andini, the lead author of the study, told The Washington Post. Thus, their method covers many fabrics at once. These include cotton, polyester, spandex, and nylon. First, a chemical solution is applied to the fabric. Then it’s microwaved. This heat helps the chemicals break down the threads. The result is a harvestable group of molecules. These can be remade into new materials.

What's next for the team? Finding a way to make the method cost-effective. Clothing companies will be more likely to use it then. For now, they advise continuing to donate or reuse clothes, rather than chucking your used T-shirts and pants into the trash.  

Photo of clothes on hangers from Unsplash courtesy of Becca McHaffie.

According to the information in paragraph 2, what percentage of clothing gets recycled each year? (Common Core RI.5.1; RI.6.1)
a. 50%
b. 25%
c. 5%
d. 0.5%
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