Bringing Local Textile Recycling to the US with Material Return’s Bobby Carswell

Image: Recycled textile fiber on display at the Minnesota State Fair in 2018. Most textile recycling in the US today produces lower quality fibers that can only be used for purposes like insulation, but Material Return hope with to change that with their approach to mechanical recycling. Image by: Tony Webster

Audio Editing by: Alexandra Jade Garcia Blurb by: Sophie Wenzlau Script by: Marie Hogan

What is mechanical textile recycling?

Mechanical textile recycling is a process by which used textiles, particularly those made with natural fibers such as cotton, wool, and linen, are broken down into their individual fibers and then spun into yarn or fabric for reuse in the production of new textiles.  Textile recycling has the potential to reduce waste and greenhouse gas emissions associated with textile production.    

Mechanical textile recycling involves a series of steps: It typically begins with the collection of used textiles, which are sorted according to their fiber type and quality.  Next, the textiles are cleaned and processed to remove impurities and contaminants such as buttons, zippers, and other non-textile materials.  Once the textiles have been cleaned and prepared, they are typically shredded or ground into small pieces. These pieces are then subjected to a series of mechanical processes—such as carding, combing, and drawing—to separate the fibers from one another.  The resulting fibers are then spun into new yarn or woven into new fabric. The new yarn or fabric can be used in a variety of products, such as clothing, linens, and industrial products, such as building insulation. 

Mechanical textile recycling could reduce demand for new clothing and other textiles, which could reduce the carbon footprint of the fashion industry.  The global fashion industry is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions: In 2018, it produced around 2.1 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions, equaling between 4% and 10% of the global total—equal to or greater than the annual greenhouse gas emissions of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined.  About 70% of these emissions came from upstream activities such as textile production, preparation, and processing.  The remaining emissions came from downstream activities, including the disposal of textiles in landfills, where they release methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as they decompose. 

Mechanical textile recycling is a relatively new technology that faces certain technical and economic challenges, including limited ability to recycle synthetic fibers or fiber blends, and a lack of textile recycling infrastructure.  For now, according to CalRecycle, the best way to reduce the environmental impact of textiles is “by reducing the amount of textiles we purchase, use, and dispose.”   

What does Material Return do, and who is Bobby Carswell?

Material Return is a textile recycling cooperative based in Morgantown, North Carolina, that works with local manufacturers and national brands to transform textile waste into new products.  Material Return recently partnered with Smartwool, an American clothing producer, to collect 400,000 pairs of used socks to recycle them into yarn for use in new socks and other circular clothing products.  Bobby Carswell is the research and development director at Material Return.    

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Ethan Elkind: I’m Ethan Elkind, and you’re listening to Climate Break. Climate solutions in a hurry. Did you know that only fifteen percent of clothes and other fabrics in the US are currently recycled? Today’s proposal: using locally based mechanical recycling to reuse these textiles  and reduce emissions from the fashion industry. Bobby Carswell is research and development director for Material Return, a recycling cooperative based in Morgantown, North Carolina. He told us about textile recycling’s role in the circular economy. 

Bobby Carswell: We’re creating products that are just the exact same as a virgin product. They’re just made with a percentage of recycled materials. In different countries, they’ve been doing this for years, but in the US most of the textile industry that actually is able to recycle the materials is going into a non woven type insulation for automobiles, appliances, fiber fill, insulation, things like that. 

Ethan Elkind: The fashion industry is responsible for roughly 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, most of which come from processing and manufacturing.Unlike conventional textile recycling, mechanical recycling returns textile waste to fibers that can be rewoven, used like new fabrics, and eventually recycled again in an infinite chain of circularity that could reduce fashion’s carbon footprint.

Bobby Carswell: The industrial waste that comes from these factories, most of the time they’re wanting a circular product on the other side made from their own waste. So they get a good benefit on both sides. They get a new, awesome product that sells a really good story and helps ’em out by removing their waste.

Ethan Elkind: To learn more about Material Return’s local recycling model and how to get involved with textile recycling as a consumer, visit climatebreak.org.

Bringing Local Textile Recycling to the US with Material Return’s Bobby Carswell