New Life for Denim: Post-Consumer Waste Jeans

Ampelio Del Lago with his PCW recycling system and denim before and after the process.

By David Shuck, Heddels

It’s no secret that we buy more clothes than we can actually use. Americans alone toss out more than 13 million tons of clothing annually, but even if you’re donating your garments to a charitable organization, they could still be destined for a landfill. Such effects of fast fashion have driven apparel to the number two polluting industry in the world.

But textile and apparel manufacturers have been taking note of the environmental imperative created by fashion’s resource drain. Many upstream companies have begun implementing greener standards before most people have started to demand them. A big difficulty for manufacturers though is creating a more sustainable product without increasing the cost to end consumers who might not understand why they’re paying more.

Many upstream producers, like Artistic Fabric & Garment Industries in Pakistan are stepping up to reduce the impact of their business. AFGI’s latest effort aims to “close the cycle” by transforming those post-consumer waste (PCW) garments before they hit the landfill and recycle them into cotton fibers.

Their PCW recycling system can process up to 1,700 pounds of denim fabric per hour, which can then be spun and woven back in with new cotton for completely new jeans. We had a firsthand tour with the system’s designer, Ampelio Del Lago, which you can view above.

“PCW is one way that we can save cotton and recover all the wastages from the market.” Del Lago explains, “We buy garments that are ready to throw in the garbage. We take the fabric and there are six different steps of shredding that, one by one, open it from a simple fabric to a loose fiber at the end.”

The grinding and cutting of the enormous machine is nearly deafening, but small windows reveal its inner workings. Giant grinding gears transform the whole denim panels from the original jeans into light and fluffy cotton.

“This is then blended with virgin cotton, which has the opportunity to make one yarn that is sustainable, mixing 30 percent in the warp.” Del Lago concedes, “We cannot make a yarn that is 100 percent [PCW], the fiber is too short and the yarn was having a lot of breakages.” Such breakages would lead to weaker finished garments that would degrade even sooner in the hands of the consumer. The blended yarns, however, are practically indistinguishable.

There are real business benefits to recycling as well, “We save on cotton production, we save a lot of chemicals–X, Y, Z. After that, the benefit is entirely to the consumer if they also have a sustainable mentality.” Del Lago believes this is ultimately a way to offset the negative effects of fast fashion, “The retailers have reduced the price such that consumers often only use one jean for one season then they throw [away]. How many used jeans are there in the world? A part of this, we can recover and retransform into new jeans.”

The recycled cotton denim makes for a more sustainable garment while keeping the price pretty much the same for the end consumer. AFGI already has interest from a number of larger denim makers who are also looking to promote more sustainable product, and there are systems like AFGI’s PCW popping up amongst many other global denim manufacturers.

Consumer demand for newer and cheaper apparel may never die, but with more manufacturer efforts for recycling and sustainability, hopefully the remains of their discarded clothes will live forever.

For more info on AFGI’s recycling system, check out their website.

Heddels is an online publication that aims to help people understand and find well-made clothing and goods that improve with use.

Image and video credit: Open-End Agency and Heddels

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