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UD senior Diadem Abayode (left) and Kelly Cobb, associate
professor of fashion and apparel studies, place recycled textiles onto
backing material in preparation to feed it through a felting machine.
Cobb, her collaborators and UD students are exploring ways to repurpose
the sustainably sourced materials in order to support a circular textile
Americans are throwing away clothing and other textiles at an alarming rate. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,
17 million tons of textile waste is generated annually in the United
States. That’s the weight equivalent of around 47 Empire State Buildings
or 2.8 million male African elephants each year.
Globally, this number is much higher at nearly 100 million tons per year.
It’s a problem that researchers at the University of Delaware hope to
have a hand in solving. Kelly Cobb, associate professor of fashion and
apparel studies, is leading a collaborative team exploring ways to
develop a hyper-local, second-generation textile supply chain. The idea
has the potential to reduce textile waste while creating a circular
textile system, where materials stay in use rather than being discarded.
The one-year project is funded with $745,000 from the National Science
Foundation’s Convergence Accelerator, with the potential for an
additional $5 million in follow-on support over two years.
“Our hope is to cross-purpose post-consumer fashion waste into new
products, keeping clothing out of landfills, generating revenue from
existing waste streams and reducing the need for virgin materials,” said
Cobb, project principal investigator.
The funding is part of an $11.5 million investment by NSF to advance the circular economy, which the EPA said
“keeps materials, products and services in circulation for as long as
possible.” The UD-led group is one of 16 interdisciplinary teams
addressing wide-ranging research aimed at improving the circularity of
materials including sustainable plastics, electronics, textiles,
concrete, photovoltaics and green hydrogen.
Co-PIs in the work include Huantian Cao, professor of fashion and apparel studies and co-director of the Sustainable Apparel Initiative
and Kedron Thomas, associate professor of anthropology from UD, and
Abigail Clarke-Sather, associate professor of mechanical and industrial
engineering at the University of Minnesota Duluth and former UD faculty
member. Other project partners include Goodwill Industries of Delaware
and Delaware County, Inc., and representatives from industry, government
and policy agencies.
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Hands hold shredded textiles with the potential to become erosion
mats, landscaping fabric and more through work underway by University of
Delaware researchers and students.
Most consumers are unaware of what happens to the mounds of
clothing, towels, tablecloths and other post-consumer textiles after
they are removed from homes. While some of these items are donated or
resold locally, many items end up in trash bins and landfills, locally,
nationally or internationally.
“We're exporting waste to other countries, so that it's ending up in
landfills in other places around the world where it can have
environmentally damaging effects and negative impacts on local
industries,” said Kedron Thomas, a cultural anthropologist and project
co-PI. “We have to start dealing with our own clothing waste.”
The research team said that taking a hyper-local approach to the
problem of post-consumer clothing and textile waste can change this,
while contributing to the local economy. The team’s approach is to prove
the viability of a holistic model where textiles are collected,
recycled and reused all within a single region, catalyzing a circular
economy. As part of the project, dubbed the Recycled Textile and
Manufacturing Ecosystems project, or RETAME, the researchers will look
at the waste streams and the specific material resources that are
available in the Delaware region to consider what and how materials can
best be repurposed for new life.
Textile scientist Huantian Cao explained that textiles have different
technical properties, such as material strength, absorbency or
biodegradability that may lend themselves to new uses.
“Textile properties play an important role when we decide the next
application of recycled textiles,” said Cao. “For example, we can
develop agricultural textiles such as weed-control mulch mats from
recycled textiles that are biodegradable. After biodegradation, these
mulch mats may enrich the soil.”
Testing and documenting the material properties of different textiles
is an important part of the process. For instance, if a recycled
textile is not biodegradable, using it for agricultural purposes could
lead to soil contamination or contribute to microplastic pollution.
Knowing this information in advance will help identify where materials
aren’t suitable for a given purpose.
UD Associate Professor Kelly Cobb (left) and Michelle Yatvitskiy, a
graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in fashion studies, feed
recycled textiles into a shredding machine.
The research team will design and test a prototype system for
gathering, sorting, mechanically recycling and remanufacturing textile
products in the Delaware Valley region, in partnership with Goodwill, a
nonprofit that provides job training and placement programs for people
with disabilities and disadvantages in part with funds raised through
the sale of items donated to its retail stores. They also plan to
develop equipment to convert unsold donated clothing from Goodwill’s
retail stores into reusable fibers.
Cobb, Cao and students involved in the Sustainable Textile Research through Applied Discovery
(RAD) Lab at UD already have experience in this area. Since 2015, the
researchers have been exploring ways to create new products from textile
waste that will appeal to consumers, using a desktop system to
deconstruct and reconstruct the materials into new non-woven fabric. The
process also can be used to make materials for insulation, soil
improvement, erosion control blankets, landscaping fabric and more.
As a first step, the UD team is working with Goodwill to quantify how
much and what kind of textiles are donated each year. This data will
inform what types of products might be created from these textile
According to Thomas, this hyper-local approach can leverage the
consumption patterns in different parts of the U.S. For example, maybe
recycled textiles from Delaware are best suited for turning into
landscaping fabric, while recycled materials sourced in Duluth,
Minnesota, are appropriate for making erosion blankets.
“We can tailor our recycling model to deal efficiently and
effectively with materials in a particular region and to look at unique
applications that can keep the materials and fibers out of landfills and
waterways,” said Thomas.
As part of the project, Thomas and her students will collect and analyze
data and document the team’s process and prototypes, to ensure that the
system is reliable and replicable in other parts of the country and
other world regions. Thomas also plans to collect data about how the
participants work as a team. Enlisting the support of partners with
expertise in behavioral analysis, waste management and economic
development will help ensure the team’s methods have practical
UD senior Diadem Abayode gives shredded material new life in a
sustainable recycled textile and apparel project funded through a
National Science Foundation Convergence research grant.
Beyond removing textiles from waste streams, the project also could
open doors to new types of green jobs and opportunities to train and
educate a future workforce. For instance, each piece of the
second-generation supply chain will require labor, which folds nicely
into Goodwill’s mission of job training.
Additionally, Cobb envisions building a fashion microfacility at UD
for students to explore various stages of the textile lifecycle and
learn how to scale sustainable solutions for fashion and textile waste.
She pointed to the UD Creamery and Vita Nova as existing models on campus of this type of hands-on student engagement.
It’s exactly the type of environment that appeals to Michelle
Yatvitskiy, a current graduate student in the RAD lab who earned her UD
undergraduate degree in fashion and apparel studies in 2022.
“Developing new ways of recycling textiles is my dream job, but I’m not quite sure yet how to get there,” said Yatvitskiy.
This isn’t the first time Cobb has heard this. She teaches graduate
and undergraduate courses on sustainability in the fashion industry.
Cobb said that while students used to talk about how they were pursuing
fashion because of how much they loved to shop, today they are asking
really hard questions about the environment, labor, inclusivity, and
social justice and fashion.
Instead of feeling daunted, Cobb is invigorated about the potential
of this generation — and this project — to effect real change in the
fashion industry, which in addition to textile waste is one of the
largest contributors to global carbon emissions and water contamination.
“It's not just about second-generation textiles. It's about shifting that consumer mindset for a better world,” she said.
Article by Karen B. Roberts, photos by Evan Krape
Published April 19, 2023