Finding eco-friendly alternatives to cotton — in the forest

January 25, 2019 - 07:00

Finnish researchers are now making fabric from trees, cardboard and old newspapers as a possible alternative to cotton.

Wood pulp can be transformed into clothes. (Photo: Aleksandrs Muiznieks/Shutterstock/NTB scanpix)

New kinds of fabrics are not necessarily big news, unless you’re an outdoor sports fanatic looking for the next best thing in the waterproof-but-breathable clothing category. But now a team from Aalto University in Finland has developed an eco-friendly alternative to cotton that can be used to make clothes.

The researchers call their fabric Ioncell. The fabric can be made from everything from birch trees to recycled newsprint, cardboard or old cotton textiles. They say the substance used to dissolve the cellulose is safe and non-toxic, and can be used again and again.

“Fabrics made with Ioncell are soft to the touch. They have a lovely shine, and fall nicely. The most important thing is that the process offers a sustainable alternative,” says Pirjo Kääriäinen, a professor at Aalto University.

Making textiles from Ioncell involves three steps: First, the cellulose is dissolved, then the substance is spun into a fibre, and then the Ioncell solution is collected so it can be reused. After that, the fibres must be carded and spun into yarn, as is the case for other textile fibres.

The researchers who developed the textile believe that society should think carefully about how forest resources are used, and that products that rely on forest materials should not only have an initial useful value but should be easily recycled.

The Ioncell method is still in its infancy, and researchers are currently perfecting the technology behind the fabric as well as developing the textile itself. The researchers hope that clothing made with the textile will be ready for the market in 2025.

Use of toxic chemicals

Kristin Syverud is research director at RISE PFI, a paper and fibre research institute in Trondheim. She says that viscose is quite similar to Ioncell, and is made from similar raw materials.

The problem with viscose production, however, is that the process relies on toxic chemicals to dissolve cellulose.

Syverud welcomes the news that the Finnish researchers have invented the new solvent Ioncell, which is free of toxic chemicals.

A similar process has been under development since the 1970s in Austria, where researchers have used a substance called Lyocell.

President Sauli Niinistö and First Lady Jennie Haukio on Finnish Liberation Day. The first lady’s dress is made of birch. (Photo: Vesa Moilanen / Lehtikuva)

“The Finns have built on this kind of thinking,” Syverud said. “The Finnish process is better, however, because it can be used with different types of raw materials. Lyocell, on the other hand, can only be used with a few types of raw materials.”

The future of clothing?

Syverud believes that the Ioncell method could be an important part of producing clothing in the future.

“The methods of dissolving cellulose without using nasty chemicals should be the future. It is a very positive development. Using the forest as a resource is very sensible,” she said.

The new textile also provides a useful alternative to cotton, Syverud says.

Today, about half of the world's textiles are made from cotton. The problem is that the cotton industry competes with agriculture by relying on large fields that could otherwise be used to produce food.

Cotton also requires a lot of water and fertilizer to grow. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), it takes 20,000 litres of water to make one kilo of cotton, which is the equivalent of a pair of pants and a t-shirt.

Forests, in contrast, don’t need to be irrigated, except by rainwater. 

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no

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