Soon Your Clothes Could Be as Recyclable as Glass or Paper. Really.

So: we’ve been tracking trends in apparel, from fast fashion to sustainable design. Which brings us to the question, “What happens to that $8 shirt” when we’re done with it?

For most folks, when that Hawaiian shirt gets frayed or just plain falls out of fashion, it’s the norm to chuck it, or, in a best-case scenario, donate it.

The U.S. generates an average of 25 billion pounds of textiles per year, or 82 pounds per person (just THINK of what the rest of the world generates!). Eighty-five percent (21 billion pounds), or 70 pounds per person, ends up in our landfills — accounting for 5 percent of all landfill space.

Some companies, like H&M and Patagonia, have started buyback programs for old or worn out items, but those companies end up with more clothes than they know what to do with. Some are made into insulation or other materials, but the tide of clothes never ends. With their current supply chains, not all clothing collected can be repurposed.

Quality secondhand retailers like ThredUp have high standards for what they will resell and only accept around 40 percent of the clothes people submit for sale, and estimates put clothing resale at only 20 percent through secondhand stores or thrift store donations. On the plus side, ThredUp reports that since 2009, garment resale popularity has skyrocketed, and it is making a difference.

“If 1 in 100 American households shopped resale, they would collectively save over $1.4 billion every year. That’s enough for each of those households to pay for two years of college.”

Unfortunately, with around 80% of donated clothes being in poor condition or simply too low-quality to make the resale cut, there are a lot of $8 shirts and $20 jeans with nowhere to go. So every year the U.S. ships a billion pounds of clothing to developing regions in Africa, South America and China (making it the 8th largest export), and other countries follow suit. So after circling the globe, the $8 shirt ends up right where it began, now taking jobs away from local textile workers by flooding the economy with cheap, fast fashion that lures people away from buying locally made clothing. And when it is finally discarded, the $8 shirt most likely ends up in a landfill after all. So much for the shirt.

But, now, even if a favorite pair of 501 jeans are threadbare and can’t be resold or reused, they don’t have to join the flow of clothes populating landfills around the globe.

A new recycling technology has arrived on the scene. It’s a startup called Evrnu, and it’s “game-changer,” according to founder Stacy Flynn. If it catches on, it could help meet the increasing need for textiles, reduce waste and water consumption and lessen the number of $8 shirts that return home to further damage developing economies. The impact could be huge.

Stacy has worked in the garment industry for many years. In 2010, she was visiting China for business, and as she traveled the country, she saw firsthand the damage that the apparel industry was doing not only to the country’s environment, but around the world. In her TEDx Talk, she describes how she set out to make a change.

Stacy asked herself: “Is there a way to break this waste down and convert it into new fiber?”

And she discovered that it was possible.

“What we were not expecting, is that we could create something so beautiful.”

Evrnu takes cotton garment waste, purifies it and breaks it down into a pulp. She explained that they then extrude this pulp into a pristine new fiber that is finer than silk and stronger than cotton – made entirely of garment waste. An added bonus, she says, is that this process also works with synthetic fiber, which is traditionally hard to recycle.

“This process uses 2% of the water used in the original cotton garment process,” Stacy says.

Considering that each ton of cotton fabric used for t-shirts and jeans uses 200 tons of water to create, that saves 196 tons per single ton of clothes.

“We can take your old jeans, break them down to the molecular level, build them back up into beautiful sweaters that feel good and hold color beautifully. When you are done with that sweater and it’s been reused and recycled, we can break it down again, and convert it back into premium jeans,” she says.

In fact, Evrnu recently inked a deal with Levi Strauss, and together, they made the first ever pair of 511 jeans from primarily post-consumer cotton waste, using approximately five old cotton t-shirts and a small amount of virgin cotton.

“Some virgin cotton was used in the warp yarn for aesthetic and time reasons. As it’s a prototype and we’re still in the early stages, we’re focusing on the breakthrough innovation in post-consumer recycling technology and the potential to create garments made from regenerated cotton fiber. In the future we see garments made purely from Evrnu fiber,” Stacy says.

Fast fashion giant H&M makes jeans out of 50% recycled fiber. So what is so new and great about Evrnu’s process? Stacy explained:

“The difference between existing technologies and the Evrnu technology is that existing methods use mechanically recycled fiber that are cut into short lengths that are mixed with virgin fiber for strength. Evrnu is a closed loop, chemically regenerated fiber; garment waste is broken down to the molecular level and extruded into first quality fiber.”

Will this technology eventually replace the need for cotton?

“The market will not move away from cotton. The major challenge from a macro perspective is: the prediction is that apparel volume will double by 2025, and our current rate of resource extraction cannot meet this demand; this is a massive opportunity for emerging technologies that efficiently manage resources.”

It doesn’t matter how worn out the garments are, Stacy says, “cellulose in and cellulose out.” She says they estimated that there could be up to 20% waste from the process, but so far they have seen much less.

Evrnu is scaling up quickly — –those 511’s are set to be in stores by 2017, and Stacy hopes to make a dent in the volume of new material produced by 2020.

“When I was born in the 1970s, we pretty much threw everything away,” Stacy said in her TEDtalk.

“Today we wouldn’t even consider throwing paper, aluminum, or glass away because it’s fully recyclable. One day we’ll be able to say the same thing about our clothing. One day very soon.”

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Information for this article came from phone interviews, Council for Textile Recycling, NRDC, TEDx Talk, ThredUp, The True Cost movie and articles by Fashionista and Triple Pundit.

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