VTT Technical Research Center of Finland has developed a process to turn worn-out cotton clothing into new fibers for the textile industry using a cellulose dissolution technique.

A group of Finnish organizations have in turn launched a project to put the new production technique into practice at all stages of the value chain. The production of “cellulose wet-spinning” is set to begin at VTT’s pop-up plant in Finland next month. The first apparel line made of the new recycled fibers is planned to be toward the end of 2016.

The Circular Economy of Textiles project is aimed at piloting and modeling a closed-loop ecosystem in line with the principles of the circular economy that will form the basis of a new way to make industrial use of textile waste. 

For the purpose of the TEKI project, VTT and Ethica have brought together a group of Finnish companies representing different activities in the value chain with a common goal of promoting the recycling of textiles, while adding value to their business activities or creating new business.

Ethica’s role in the project is to research and model the potential of a closed-loop textile ecosystem more comprehensively and to gauge consumers’ interest in operating models based on the principles of circular economy and recycled materials. The project also aims to study the technological requirements of dissolution-based recycling.

Cotton that is not suitable for reuse can be dissolved to make cellulose solution that can be turned into new fiber. Cellulose fiber can be produced using the same technique and equipment as has been used to make viscose fiber for decades, but the new production technique is considerably more environmentally friendly than the technique used for viscose, as no carbon disulphide is needed in the dissolution process, according to VTT. Compared to virgin cotton, the new technique also reduces the water footprint by more than 70 percent and the carbon footprint by 40 to 50 percent, VTT noted.

“The wet-spinning phase of the project is due to begin in a month’s time in a factory in Valkeakoski that has not been in use for a couple of years,” said VTT senior scientist Pirjo Heikkilä, who is responsible for coordinating the TEKI project. “Work done prior to this phase involves processing and dissolving pre-processed waste textiles. This is the first time that cellulose solution made from recycled materials is being wet-spun in an industrial scale. The fiber will be used to make new knitted fabrics.”

The pilot phase of the TEKI project began in May. The Helsinki Metropolitan Area Reuse Center Ltd. has collected and processed cotton textiles thrown away by consumers that could not be reused as clothing or used as material for recycled products.

VTT is in the process of turning the material into a cellulose carbamate solution and will be fiberizing the solution in Valkeakoski in the next two months. The company Pure Waste will then turn the fibers into thread and knitted fabrics. Seppälä will design and produce a line of prototypes and, once the pilot phase of the project has been completed, manufacture a commercial clothing line for its customers. Seppälä will also involve its customers in the project by running a used clothes collection campaign in its stores next spring.

The aim is to sell the garments in RePack packaging, meaning that customers receive products without the usual packaging waste. In addition, customers can use the packaging to return any old textiles they may have to the Helsinki Metropolitan Area Reuse Center for recycling.

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