Your useless old clothes can be turned into building materials

Could used clothes be turned into something useful?

Richard Levine/Alamy Stock Photo

Used and unwanted clothes could be turned into building materials instead of going to landfill. It’s about using a technique where last season’s must-haves are shredded and turned into solid panels for floors or walls.

The current abundance of cheap clothes and fast fashion trends mean that most clothes are thrown away after a few seasons, generating 10 million tons of landfills in the United States alone every year. As they break down, they release toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases.

Not only is this bad for the environment, but it also misses the opportunity to turn valuable clothing fibers into new products, says Veena Sahajwalla of the University of New South Wales in Australia.

To create new building materials, Sahajwalla and her team collected a random assortment of clothes from charity bins. After manually removing zippers, buttons, buckles, and other solid items, they ran the remaining blend of cotton, polyester, nylon, and other fabrics through a fine-grain shredder.

They then treated the resulting fleece with a chemical to help the different fiber components stick together, then compressed it under heat to form strong panels.

Different panels

Panels made from Junk Clothing

Veena Sahajwalla, University of New South Wales

In a series of tests, the panels proved to be strong, water resistant and flame retardant. Their properties could also be refined by mixing the fleece with other scraps like sawdust from old sofas.

The panels had different textures and colors resembling wood, ceramic or stone – depending on their mix of components – which makes them usable as floor tiles, wall panels or other interior finishes, says Sahajwalla. Their strength could also make them suitable for load-bearing applications.

The team is currently building a small factory in the basement of their university to see if the recycling process can be scaled up and commercialized.

One of the challenges they face is how to convert mixtures of different garments into building materials with consistent properties. “It may just be that you need to mix more of a particular component if you want to adjust the properties,” says Sahajwalla.

The group is the first to turn old clothes into strong building materials, but European researchers are also working to recycle them into soft mats for use as thermal and acoustic insulation inside floors, walls and ceilings.

Journal reference: Cleaner Production JournalDOI: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2018.10.227

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