Recycled Cellulose fibers are the future of sustainable fabrics

By: Johanne Stenstrup

Every plant consists of cellulose, and can in theory be made into smooth fabric through regenerated cellulose fiber technology. And it doesn’t stop with plants, existing fabrics made of 100 % plant based fibers can be broken down into their cellulose base and made into new desirable fibers. 

Cellulose fiber have shown to be one of the most popular fibers invented, and have caught on by the fashion industry. Viscose was the first, but since the 90’s new cellulose fibers have caught on, lead by Tencel. These new cellulose based fibers are more sustainable and clean, as well as popular by the conventional fashion industry.

This year, Swedish company Re:newcell had a scientific breakthrough, when they managed to turn pre-consumer cotton waste into new cellulose fiber.

With a combination of historical succes and future innovations, I believe that closed-loop cellulose fibers are the future of sustainable fabrics, with their conventional appeal and sustainable attributes.

The options for raw materials are theoretically endless

Not only can cellulose fibers potentially close the loop in the fashion cycle, but the technology can also be used to minimize waste in existing sectors. Already today an existing product is Cupro, which is made from the part of the cotton plant that is not the soft white part. The technology for this was actually discovered simultaneously as Viscose, but were not commercialized at the same scale due to price. Other crops can be used too, like the leaves from banana plants or pineapple plants.  Today it is widely common to transform bamboo into soft viscose and lyocell fabric, but if it is also possible to use softer plants like cotton (as the case of Cupro), the possibilities are theoretically endless. 

With the newest findings from Swedish Re:newcell it is also shown that pre-consumer cotton fabric waste can be made into new cellulose fibers. The next step must surely be post-consumer cotton waste; a resource this world has plenty of.

Could cellulose fiber be the future?

I believe that the future of sustainable materials will be all about using what we’ve already got. Fashion giant H&M have already deemed closed loop systems the future. There is much discussion as to whether cotton can ever be truly sustainable, because of water use. Polyester is popular for of it’s great properties for sportswear, but more conscious consumers start to question it due to fear of microplastic. 

Technology in regenerated cellulose fibers are continuously showing that it could be possible in the future, to use a great variety of raw materials; different plant parts that are today seen as waste, pre-consumer waste and possibly even post-consumer. There might be a hope for much of the world’s textile waste as well as unwanted dead-stock fabric. While it is an area that needs much more innovation, it is also one that could leave us with better fabrics. 

Mechanically recycled wool and cotton, as well as chemically regenerated polyester all have lover quality than virgin fibers, and thus needs to be mixed. The finding from Swedish Re:newcell show that a recycled cellulose fiber can be of equal quality to virgin fibers. If we should judge from the three generations of cellulose fibers already on the market, where each generation outranks the later in performance, it might even be better than the virgin fiber from which it was first produced.

This is an extract from an essay written with the findings from this article from Sourcing Journal:

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