The apparel industry accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions. The annual amount of fiber production reached 113 million tons in 2021 and the demand is increasing every year. However, almost 90% of post-consumer fiber wastes are disposed of through incineration or deposition in landfills. Among these forms of waste, synthetic fiber has become a major threat to the environment and human health because, similar to other plastics, it is not biodegradable. Due to its low cost and durability, polyester is the most widely used synthetic fiber on the planet, accounting for more than half of all fabrics annually produced. Comprehensive recycling of polyester is thus a critical challenge for environmental sustainability and the health of future generations.

In practice, crude textile waste is not suitable for reuse or recycling because it is mixed with different fabric materials, colored by different dyes, and contaminated by various other impurities. Sorting it into homogeneous materials is necessary to make the waste recyclable by a chemical or mechanical method. To this end, a research team at the Korea Research Institute of Chemical Technology (KRICT) has developed a new chemical technology referred to as “chemical sorting.” Their study is published in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering.

This technology is applied to separate polyester from waste textiles that are disposed of in a mixed and contaminated form. In the process, a unique chemical compound, which selectively disrupts the chemical interaction between polyester and the dye used for its color, is used for the separation. The research team has also developed a new chemical recycling technology that consumes less energy than conventional methods to convert polyester into valuable monomers, which can be repeatedly used for the synthesis of polymer materials.

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Author: National Research Council of Science & Technology,
Image: Korea Research Institute of Chemical Technology