Introducing a Game Changer for Discarded Clothing

New invisible sorting labels can help make textiles repurposing circular.

Recycled fabrics.

(J.K2507 /

People like to wear fashionable, and trendy clothes. Today, it is easier than ever before to purchase new items in malls, online, or for those who are environmentally conscious to buy from thrift stores.

But what do you do with all this clothing when it is tired, worn-out, or hopelessly outdated? You would think that clothing can be easily recycled, but it really isn’t, according to Treehugger. In fact, less than 15 percent of discarded clothing and textiles are recycled leaving the rest to go into landfills. That’s because most recyclers do not know what the textiles are made of or how to recycle them. Now, an invisible sorting label, developed by a team at the University of Michigan, ensures that the materials can be identified and recycled.

Why are the photonic tags necessary?
The tags that you usually find in clothing don’t always last to the end of a garment's life, reported Michigan News from the University of Michigan. Tags are frequently cut off, worn out, or illegible. That’s why the researchers set out to make a new tag that would remain for the life of the fabric.

“It’s like a barcode that’s woven directly into the fabric of a garment,” Max Shtein, University of Michigan professor of materials science and engineering and corresponding author of the study that was published in  Advanced Materials Technologies said in Michigan News. “We can customize the photonic properties of the fibers to make them visible to the naked eye, readable only under near-infrared light or any combination.”

Recyclers use near-infrared sorting systems that can identify the different materials according to optical signatures like PET plastics in water bottles. Fabrics also have different signatures but because so many garments are composed of blended materials, the sorting systems do not work.

“For a truly circular recycling system to work, it’s important to know the precise composition of a fabric — a cotton recycler doesn’t want to pay for a garment that’s made of 70 percent polyester,” Brian Iezzi, a postdoctoral researcher in Shtein’s lab and lead author of the study said. “Natural optical signatures can’t provide that level of precision, but our photonic fibers can.”

Butterfly wings
The team used the researchers photonic expertise to develop the new technology.  Photonic properties were used to develop the new tags by using a preform; a plastic feedstock that is composed of dozens of layers. The researchers used acrylic and polycarbonate that appear clear but actually create optical effects that look like color, the same process that gives butterfly wings their shimmer.

The fibers are tuned for different materials and woven into the textile so that recyclers know exactly what is in discarded garments. But in addition to making recycling easier, the photogenic labeling can be used by consumers to see where and how their clothing is made.

While recycling old clothing will help the environment, what is really needed is to have fewer clothing being discarded, according to Treehugger. Instead of buying and supporting fast fashion, clothing has to be made more sustainably and should be repairable to last longer. But until there is a cultural shift in the way people view clothing, making textiles  more recyclable is an important first-step.

5 Hacks to Give Clothing a Second Chance
Clothing Exchanges are Becoming More Popular
A Fashion Forward Solution to Mend and Reuse Clothes