Levi’s Wants to Recycle Your Jeans

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Every second of every day, a garbage truck’s worth of cloth Find your way into the global landfill, Clothing made from natural fabrics such as cotton biodegrade within a few weeks or months, but synthetic fabrics such as polyester—a plastic derived from petroleum—can take two or more centuries to break down.

To keep its jeans out of the trash, Levi’s has spent the past decade developing clothing made from recycled fibers that can be recycled again at the end of its life. circular 501 jeans, unveiled last year, is a re-imagining of the brand’s iconic 501s worn by John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, and Henry Rollins alike. Made from organic cotton, wood pulp and repurposed textiles, these jeans are 100% recyclable.

To achieve this, Levi’s worked with Swedish textile-recycling company Reneusel. Its process involves separating zippers, buttons, garment labels and other non-recyclables from clothing and mechanically shredding the remaining material. Next comes chemical recycling, in which the cotton and cellulose fibers are pulverized into a pulp called cellulose. That product can then be blended with other fibers to make things like 501 jeans.

Only certain fibers can be recycled—namely, cotton and cellulose types, such as lyocell and modal. Therein lies one major obstacle: mixed clothing. “One of the challenges with circularity is that you can’t have it all,” says Paul Dillinger, head of global product innovation at Levi Strauss & Co. , “I wish they didn’t exist, but customers love them,” Dillinger says.

Even cotton clothing that is 100 percent recyclable has a significant environmental impact: Most of the world’s cotton is produced in places struggling with water scarcity. In India – the world’s top cotton producer – it takes 22,500 liters of water to make one kilogram of cotton, and the process of dyeing and washing denim consumes thousands. Then there are the effects of the pesticides used to grow the cotton. In India too, two out of five cotton farmers have experienced pesticide poisoning in the past year.

Nora Eslander, head of communications at ReNewCell, says that improving circularity in the fashion industry hinges on a few key factors: brands are committed to better materials and designing for end-of-life; governments stepping up efforts to encourage and promote textile recycling; And clothing-recycling initiatives are finding enough support to expand rapidly.

Levi’s Dillinger says consumers also need to invest in buying clothes that will last longer. Achieving this takes the will to resist a good sale and the determination to invest in better quality items. “501s should be in your wardrobe for about 10 years—and they’re probably still good.”

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