Working at Nau, I get to know the ins and outs of recycled fabrics. Recycled polyester? Deal with it every day. Recycled wool? Sure. But until last week I hadn’t even heard of recycling cotton—or how close I am to one of its stories every day.
Polyester recycling programs, like Eco-Circle and Common Threads, started popping up in the apparel industry about 5 years ago. But while buying a piece of polyester clothing that can be recycled is pretty revolutionary, it turns out the cotton industry has been recycling apparel for decades. “Going organic” is the sexy cotton story that everyone is talking about because it’s relatively new, while the story about recycling cotton is often over-looked.
I learned a few days ago that large scale in the Lizard Lounge (our retail store here in Portland) isn’t just another cool recycled fixture Bob found at a thrift store. From 1961-2005, our building was occupied by Pioneer Wiping Cloth, a company that took cotton from the waste stream and recycled it into wiping rags. They used this massive scale to weigh large bundles (up to 2000 pounds) of inbound cotton clothing, and outbound bundles of cotton wiping rags.
Unlike recycling polyester, cotton recycling is not a revolutionary idea. Pioneer Wiping Cloth was founded in 1931 because it was clear that clothing with holes or stains was no where near the end of its useful life. It’s still more durable than a paper product and more absorbent. Goodwill, Salvation Army, and other thrift stores send clothes that are unsellable to places like Pioneer Wiping Cloth where it’s sorted and turned into wiping rags, sold overseas, or eventually made into recycled cotton yarn.
Another interesting part of the cotton waste stream is the “Cotton. From Blue to Green” program where old blue-jeans become home insulation.
As a self-proclaimed green-geek, I am inspired by how the cotton industry found a profitable way of reusing and recycling cotton for at least 80 years. I’d like to say “thank you, cotton” for having a happy ending to your waste-stream story.