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Can everything old be made new again?

Brands and regulators confront the complexities and technological challenges of the circular economy

by Melody M. Bomgardner
June 27, 2016 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 94, ISSUE 26

The average American woman owns seven pairs of jeans. One in four women own more than 10 pairs, but only four get worn on a regular basis, according to a survey conducted by Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine.


Can everything old be made new again?

Styles change, and that can be a good thing—remember super-low-rise jeans? Still, over a consumer’s lifetime, all those unworn and unwanted jeans can add up to a lot of waste. Meanwhile, the manufacture of those wardrobe staples uses a huge amount of water, not to mention chemicals that can pollute rivers and streams in places as far away as Bangladesh.

But what if jeans could be made in a nonpolluting way and their raw materials recycled over and over to make new pairs in the latest fashion? That is the promise of the circular economy, the process of turning waste into a resource by reusing and recycling products at the end of their useful life.

Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN
Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN

Clothing brands and retailers such as Levi’s and H&M are already training consumers to think of their used clothes as a resource by promoting product take-back programs. But critics of the textile industry would like to see clothing brands first ensure that basic pollution prevention efforts are in place at their far-flung contract manufacturing sites before they move on to more lofty goals.

In addition, it’s not clear how well suited today’s or yesterday’s products are for continuous reuse. Clothing and other consumer goods that are likely to meet up in a closed-loop recycling system may contain chemicals that impact human health or the environment.

Some large companies are collaborating to ensure that tomorrow’s styles are created with the circular economy in mind. They are doing this by replacing hazardous ingredients and developing technologies that enable the use of more recycled material. At the same time, individual brands hope that their sustainability efforts will help them stand out in a crowded marketplace piled with inexpensive, mass-produced goods.

In the following pages, C&EN explores steps the apparel industry is taking to give old fashions new life (see page 30) and the vigorous debate occurring in Europe over how best to encourage virtuous materials cycles (see page 33). The stories make clear that the arrival of the circular economy—if indeed it arrives—is going to shake up industries far and wide.



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Paul Palmer (June 29, 2016 10:35 PM)
As a long time subscriber to C&E News, I lament the superficial nature of this article. It was not written by scientists and it makes use of no scientific thinking, which is the least you would expect from a chemical magazine.
Readers of C&E News i.e. chemists, might want to think about applying circular design to chemicals, rather than to jeans. Unfortunately articles about resource conservation are invariably "cute" and discuss the worst possible way of reusing anything, namely recycling. I founded and ran the only company yet in the world for the broad scale reuse of all chemicals, a good deal more significant project than jeans. We took in all the chemicals in the San Francisco Bay Area we could find and found new uses for them. We took every single excess (others call it waste but we don't) that came out of Silicon Valley and reused them all in innovative ways. Why not, they were quite clean. We had the largest collection of laboratory chemicals in California, all for sale at half price. The so-called "proper" management of chemicals is wasteful, harmful and unnecessary but those who have gotten into their reuse are, with virtually no exception, not chemists and have no idea of how to deal with them creatively. The magic ingredient in our work was chemical expertise. This counted far more than any separation or refining processes. We reused hundreds of tons of hundreds of different chemicals and made a lot of money doing it so it was not a mere labor of love. Anyone with chemical intelligence can do the same.

After that experience, I wrote books, articles and a website explaining that the principles of reuse that we discovered were universal and applied to all products, not just chemicals. It begins with recognizing that no good recovery is possible for products that are designed from the start to fall apart and proceed speedily into a dump. It depends on recognizing that no end-of-pipe method can actually work. This includes recycling, defined as a desperate attempt when it is already too late, to try to extract materials, the least valuable components of mixed products for barely defensible reuse. This is no way to run a resource conserving society. It doesn't work for jeans, chemicals, smartphones, automobiles or anything else. The only way to conserve resources is to design products, and their usage modes, for long term conservation right at the start.

For more information, my website at will fill you in. Look under PROJECTS for many worked out examples of redesign for reuse.
Melody Bomgardner (July 7, 2016 12:34 PM)
Hi Paul,
I'm not sure if you noted that this text was just a brief introduction to two features that specifically discuss the chemical aspects of circular design strategies. They are here and here

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