Sunday, March 3, 2024

Scientists Have Finally Cracked the Code on Spandex Recycling

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Researchers at the Vienna University of Technology have created a pioneering process they say can separate elastane, commonly known as spandex, from textile waste.

Spandex is ubiquitous in clothing. The synthetic polymer fiber enhances the flexibility of garments playing an essential role in undergarments and athletic wear, among other categories. However, it poses significant recycling difficulties.

Until now, the textile industry lacked a scalable method to separate elastane from blended fabrics, hindering the recycling of host fibers. The team in Vienna, after experimenting with six organic solvents, identified dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) as the most effective and non-hazardous option for this purpose. The research revealed that DMSO not only efficiently separates elastane but also allows for the complete recovery of polyester and polyamide components. Furthermore, the solvent can be purified and reused in a closed-loop process, exemplifying a circular approach to textile waste management.

The achievement is the first of its kind and offers a scalable solution to a long-standing recycling challenge.

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Photo courtesy Pablo Heimplatz

Previous attempts to separate elastane have faced challenges, such as using hazardous solvents like N,N-Dimethylformamide or techniques that compromise the safety of female fertility or unborn fetuses. The Vienna team’s use of DMSO stands out as a safe and efficient alternative, paving the way for a significant shift from a linear to a circular textile economy.

The innovative process was validated through various analytical techniques, including differential scanning calorimetry, thermogravimetric analysis, and scanning electron microscopy. These tests confirmed the effectiveness of the process, marking a significant advancement in textile recycling.

This breakthrough comes at a crucial time, as global fiber consumption has dramatically increased. According to the United Nations, per capita fiber consumption rose to 14 million metric tons in 2022 from 8.4 million metric tons in 1975, with projections to reach 17.5 million metric tons by 2030. Synthetic fibers, which include polyester, polyamide, and elastane, have grown exponentially, accounting for 64 percent of the entire fiber market by 2021.

The European Union has recognized the urgency of addressing textile waste, as evident in its 2018 Waste Framework Directive and the 2022 Textile Strategy. The Vienna team’s discovery aligns with these initiatives, offering a viable pathway towards fiber-to-fiber textile recycling — a critical component of a sustainable and circular textile economy.

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