With growing awareness and urgency about textile waste management and recycling, research and innovation is opening up new possibilities that may become de-riguer in our lives in the coming years. From innovations in materials used for fabric, new ways of dying and printing, improved methods of processing toxic waste and smart tailoring to innovative reuse technologies, right down to innovations in how we could shop in a way that reduces waste, here are some snippets of what the future may hold.

Spurred on by consumer-awareness around sustainability, manufacturers and retailers are investing in new research and trialling innovations that will take them closer to their ‘green’ goals.

Swedish retailer, H&M started a grant-endowment initiative called “Global Change Award” that got more than 2700 submissions from 112 countries in its inaugural run in 2015. The 1 million Euros prize money was split among 5 winning innovations, including clothing made from citrus-juice byproducts, polyester-digesting microbes and an online marketplace for textile surplus.

Recycling Innovations

Some examples of recycling innovations now commercially available through retailers:

In May 2016, Levi Strauss teamed up with a Seattle-based startup called Evrnu, to create the world’s first pair of jeans made up of more than 50% post-consumer cotton waste. The technique, Evrnu says, consumes 98% less water than those associated with virgin-cotton products.

American apparel brand, Eileen Fischer launched its first ‘zero-waste’, 500-piece collection with almost no new raw materials. The technique harnesses needle-felting, natural dyeing and re-sewing to breathe life into items collected through its recycling initiative.

Recycling company Repreve makes three kinds of recycled yarn from from used plastic bottles, fibre waste and used fabric. The yarn is used to make everything from jackets to T-shirts to car upholstery. Since its launch in 2009, production has increased 20% every year and it has recycled 4 billion plastic bottles into yarn in the last 7 years.

Process Efficiency Innovations

DYING – Companies like AirDye work with proprietary dyes that are heat-transferred from paper to fabric in a one-step process, saving water (between 7 and 75 gallons per pound of fabric) and energy (85% less energy than traditional dying).

DIGITAL PRINTING – Prints are directly applied to fabrics with printers, reducing water usage by 95%, energy usage by 75% and minimizing textile waste. This technique has been used by designers like Mary Katrantzou, Alexander McQueen and Basso & Brooke.

WATER-FREE STONE WASHING – Levi’s WaterLess products are a water-conserving collection that allows the company to use an average of 28% less water to finish their jeans.

SMART TAILORING – ‘Direct Panel on Loom’ technology, also called Smart Tailoring increases fabric efficiency (by 15%) and reduces lead-time (by 50%) in the manufacture of high-end garments. Using a computer attached to a loom, data on colour, pattern and size of garment is fed in and the loom cranks out the exact pieces, which then simply need to be constructed. The technology also has energy and water savings of 70-80%.

FILTERING WASTE WATER – A technology called Sequencing Batch Biofilter Granular Reactor has been developed to remove the toxic organic compounds in textile dyes components by breaking them down via ozone treatment, prior to the application of a wastewater bio-filtering technique.

The wastewater is poured over microorganisms grown in aggregates, which process pollutants in the waste. Unlike traditional biological systems, each aggregate holds up to 10 times more microorganisms and produces 80 percent less sludge than conventional biological filters.

SORTING MACHINES – Advanced mechanised sorting machines increase efficiency and productivity, also cutting labour costs of sorting discarded textile for reuse. As opposed to manual labour, the machines statistically account for everything they sort. This data can then be used to determine yields, sale value, raw material cost, labor wages, productivity of human operators etc. to further optimise the supply chain.

TEXTILE TO TEXTILE – Mechanical recycling process has the disadvantage that it results in damage to the fibre, shortening it and making it less suitable for use. Since a majority of clothes are made from a blend of textiles, it makes them much harder to recycle mechanically. New technologies are being developed to find away to split these back into their constituent parts to enable them to be recycled into usable textiles again.

H&M has teamed up with Puma to trial a technology that separates and extracts polyester and cotton from blended fiber clothing and aims to separate dyes and other particles from polyester and cellulose. The raw materials that are recaptured will then be used to spin new fabric for clothes.

Shopping Innovations

Smart on-line shopping tools that match shoppers’ personal measurements and preferences provide the assurance that each piece of clothing they purchase will fit and flatter them. Such innovations have the potential to dramatically reduce returns and minimise shipping energy and waste in the process.

New Fabrics

Research in new fabrics continues to throw up novel and often surprising fabrics. Fibres from materials like nettle, milk, coffee-grounds and hemp-silk, for instance, could provide organic, energy-efficient alternatives to cotton and polyester. Besides, each such fabric is found to have its own unique applications ranging from flexibility, tenacity of fibre to natural anti-bacterial, water-proofing and insulating properties.

A Closed Loop System Inspired by Nature

Designers and scientists suggest that we get rid of the words “end of life” and replace it with “end of use” when speaking of textiles. This change in perspective will allow us to move from a pattern of linear use-and-throw to a closed, circular process where there is potentially no concept of waste.

Consider the water cycle. Water moves through the physical processes of evaporation, condensation, precipitation, infiltration, runoff and subsurface flow while the mass of water remains constant over time. There’s no down-cycling or downgrading of the molecules in this process. Outputs of one process continuously move into the next process as usable inputs and so on repeatedly in a closed loop. Stunning and foolproof.

What if the cycle of textile production and use achieved such simple sophistication – if every fibre of textile produced is continually reused or organically converted into a form that is used to make textile again!