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How Your Old Jeans Could Become Someone's Prosthetic Knee

Your jeans could be re-purposed and sold as part of someone's prosthetic knee.

An Australian designed solution to textile waste means old clothing can be converted into almost anything -- and engineers are getting closer to getting it on shop shelves.

It's a bid to help reduce the growing amount of fast-fashion waste.

The fast-fashion industry contributed to an increase in the amount of textile waste going to landfill.  In fact, 500,000 tonnes of waste from the textile industry goes to landfill each year.

A whopping 20 percent of all freshwater pollution is a result of textile treatment and dying. Dying is also a resource-heavy process that uses a plethora of human and natural resources.

But technology developed by Australia's own Institute Frontier Materials at Deakin University has developed a way to repurpose natural, dyed or blended fibres into anything, even a prosthetic knee.

Textile Waste
500,000 tonnes of waste from the textile industry goes to landfill each year. Photo: Getty Images.

The process sees fabrics broken down to their basic chemical form.

"We started with denim, it's a common fashion item, everyone can relate to it and it's easy to explain," Dr Nolene Byrne Associate Professor from Deakin's leading circular economy group, Institute for Technology Research and Innovation told 10 daily.

Researchers access the cellulose bio-polymer -- an abundant, versatile and strong carbohydrate that comes predominantly from trees and has many industrial uses. Cellulose is used to make everything from paper to cellophane, industrial gels, and acetates.

Cotton is also 90 percent cellulose. This is significant because an old cotton garment, like a t-shirt or a pair of jeans, could be recycled to make an entirely new object.

"There is a pulping process, where you remove the ligaments and other components from trees and what you are left with is wood pulp and a high purity cellulose material.

"You can make many products from wood pulp from recycled products so that's where are we going with the synthetic knees," she said.

Jeans
Cotton is 90 percent cellulose. Photo: Getty Images.

While the cotton recycling process is the closest to being adopted by the industry, similar processes for blended and synthetic textiles are also being developed.

The Institute's system means textile colours and dyes can be reused, making the new process significantly more environmentally friendly than what currently exists.

"When we look at places recycling, there are ways to recycle plastics.  The amount of [textile] waste that is generated and continues to be generated on the scale that it is with the population growth, there has to be chemical textile recycling," Byrne said.

Bryne also said the new research essentially provides a circular economy-style option for the textile industry, where clothing items can be recreated and repurposed instead of going to landfill.

READ MOREI Had The Bottle To Go Without Plastic For A Week. Here's What Happened.

"We wanted our technology to be a closed loop and we wanted the solvent system, or the chemicals, to be eco-friendly and sustainable ... as well as economical as possible," Byrne said.

Cotton Plant
Cotton is a material high in cellulose and is easily recycled. Photo: Getty Images.
What Is A Circular Economy?

A circular economy is much more than traditional recycling.

It's an alternative to the current 'take, make, throwaway' approach to products. It tries to refocus consumer and manufacturer thinking to a 'take, make and recreate' system.

READ MORE: Eco-Straws Tried And Tested: What Passed And What Sucked

"One of the main principles is trying to get rid of the concept of waste because if you think about it, what is waste?" Research Director at the Centre for Business and Social Innovation at the University Of Technology, Sydney Melissa Edwards told 10 daily.

"Waste is just something that we have decided is a resource that doesn't have value anymore but actually, all resources and all materials have value it's just about how we use them."

But if those items are to keep their value, they have to be kept in use for longer.  Byrne's research is an example of this, where a used item of fabric is repurposed into another garment or a completely different object, thus giving it further value.

Recycle
All materials have values, it's how we used them. Photo: Getty Images.

Edwards said both consumers and manufacturers don't have to "give up everything" they are used to, but change their mindset about how items are made and disposed of.

"We want disposability, people want convenience ... and that helps us think differently about product design," she said.

"If I have a completely biodegradable package that goes back into the earth and enhances the soil ... and if that package has been produced using renewable energy sources does it matter if am consuming that and then disposing it?"

Contact Siobhan at skenna@networkten.com.au