The reason your outdoor adventure clothes fit so comfortably and adapt to your body so easily is probably because they contain elastane, also known as “Lycra” or “spandex.”

When you’re traveling and going on adventures in the outdoors, there’s nothing more important than having comfortable and durable clothes to wear. It can mean the difference between having a memorable time or a miserable one. I find that if my outdoor clothes have a touch of spandex in them, they’ll stretch in all the right places when I move and hardly be marred by the branches scraped against, the mud puddles stepped in or the rocks scrambled over on hiking trails. You probably do, too.

Sadly, however, clothes and other textiles are among the materials that we are the worst at recycling. While the plastics industry has been able to break down pure polyester for decades, most of the clothes in our wardrobes are made from a blend of textiles, making it challenging to recycle one fiber without degrading another. But this could soon change: scientists have now developed a new technology that can separate out fibers in mixed fabrics.

In other good recycling and repurposing news, cutting-edge research is demonstrating how we can convert waste carbon dioxide (CO2) into a potential precursor for a carbon-free fuel.


Spandex clothes are also durable, making them the perfect material for withstanding the challenges of your exercise workout without fading, tearing or wearing away.

Ejecting elastane

According to, more than 100 billion items of clothing are produced globally each year, and the United Nations tells us that the fashion industry is estimated to be responsible for 8% to 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Just 1% of recycled clothes are turned back into new garments. While charity shops, retailer “take-back” programs and textile banks help to keep those donated, wearable clothes in circulation, the capabilities of recycling clothes at the end-of-life stage are currently limited.

Today, many clothes are made with mixed fibers. One of the most popular is elastane, a synthetic fabric made from polyurethane, which is a type of plastic derived from petrochemicals. Elastane, Lycra and spandex are terms that are often used interchangeably to refer to the same type of synthetic fiber; in Canada and the U.S., it’s usually referred to as “spandex” rather than “elastane.”

The standout feature of cotton elastane fabric (which is typically 90% cotton and 10% elastane) is its exceptional stretchability, allowing the fabric to be pulled significantly and still retain its original shape. That makes elastane the perfect material for designing body-hugging and comfortable clothing products. But when elastane fibers are mixed with cotton, nylon, wool or other fibers, the clothes become almost impossible to recycle. That’s because it’s extremely difficult to separate out the different fibers.


Annually, around the world, more than 100 billion clothing items are manufactured.

Now, however, researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark have come up with a new technology that can do that work.

Currently in Denmark, only about 6% of clothes thrown away are recycled. In comparison, 32% of all plastic packaging in the country is reclaimed. The new method created at the university will allow elastane to be completely removed from nylon; although eliminating it from cotton will take a bit more time to develop because some of the cotton fibers are broken down in the process.

It’s not easy to separate elastane and other fibers once they have been woven together. Clothes are made by winding the main fibers, such as nylon or cotton, around the elastane fibers, which consist of long chains of molecules. The fibers only break apart if the molecule chains are broken. The many links in the elastane chain are bound together by a small molecule called a diamine. By heating the clothes to 225 degrees Celsius and adding a specific alcohol, the Denmark scientists found they could break down the bonds in elastane. When this happens, the chains fall apart, and the materials separate.


An outstanding feature of cotton elastane fabric is that it is extremely flexible and stretchable, all while retaining its original shape.

The whole process takes place in what is, in effect, a large pressure cooker. The textiles are fed into it, then a little alcohol and a “base” are added, and the mixture is heated. It’s left to cook for just over four hours. When the lid is opened, the different fibers are separated.

Because most of the fibers in the clothes need to be recyclable, using harsh chemicals is not an option. Instead, the special base is made by adding alcohol to potassium hydroxide, one of the main ingredients in ordinary drain cleaner. The researchers found that the potassium hydroxide increased the speed of the chemical reaction. While it’s not known exactly why it works, it’s thought that either potassium hydroxide increases the reactivity of the alcohol or that the bonds are broken down slightly by the potassium hydroxide, so it’s easier for the alcohol to break them completely.

So far, the university research team has only experimented with two nylon stockings at a time. They hope that industry will embrace the technology and scale it up in earnest so that much larger amounts of clothing can be decomposed. Unfortunately, at the present time, Denmark does not have the facilities to exploit the technology at large scale. Germany, on the other hand, has some of the largest plants in the world and would be the nation most likely to be able to use the method to recycle large amounts of fibers from elastane-containing clothes.


Usually, a piece of clothing made of cotton elastane is a blend of natural cotton fibers (90%) and synthetic elastane fibers (10%).

For large chemical plants to be interested in commercializing this newly developed method, of course, they would need to be able to see a business model in buying recycled materials and using them in the production of new fibers. If they do, the world may soon have the capacity to disassemble fabrics so that we can recycle far more textiles in the future.

Converting CO2

As emissions of carbon dioxide—the primary greenhouse gas—rise each year, scientists are looking into options for capturing and storing carbon dioxide, for repurposing CO2 and for pursuing a carbon-free economy.

Now, in another case of groundbreaking technologies for recycling and repurposing, cutting-edge research out of the University of Auckland in New Zealand has resulted in converting waste carbon dioxide into a potential precursor for a carbon-free fuel.


In the future, automobiles could be fueled with repurposed carbon dioxide.

Publishing their results in the science journal Nature in January 2024, the scientists—in collaboration with researchers at Chinese institutions—demonstrated a method for turning CO2 into formic acid. Formic acid, the same substance produced by ants (formica is the Latin word for ant), is a colorless, pungent liquid with prospects for enabling the petrochemical industry to cut CO2 emissions, for storing electrical energy and for use as a transportation fuel.

In benchtop experiments, the scientists—who are world leaders in CO2 electrochemical reduction research using acidic rather than alkaline conditions—made a catalyst from waste lead-acid batteries (rechargeable batteries that use lead and sulfuric acid to function) that enabled a transformation which hadn’t been possible using previous catalysts. Using a proton exchange membrane electrolyzer, carbon dioxide flowed into an electrochemical cell and was converted into formic acid, like charging a battery. In tests, the new method efficiently converted CO2 for more than 5,000 hours, and the researchers’ calculations suggest it can be cost-effectively scaled up for industry.

This innovation opens exciting possibilities for carbon-neutral technologies. In the future, cars and gas stations could be running on and supplying repurposed carbon dioxide.


We need to make fashion circular and sustainable by limiting fashion pollution and waste, keeping garments in use and reuse for as long as possible, and developing technologies that will turn textiles into new raw materials.

Making “material” modifications

Our customary, linear model of fashion consumption is not sustainable. We can’t keep depleting the Earth’s natural resources by pumping oil to make polyester, cutting down trees to grow cotton or make viscose (rayon), and then use these fibers just once in a linear value chain ending in incinerators, oceans or landfills. In the U.S., landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions, a greenhouse gas 28 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere. We need to make fashion circular. This means limiting fashion pollution and waste while also keeping garments in use and reuse for as long as possible by developing collection programs or technologies to turn textiles into new raw materials. The recently published Denmark study shows that we may soon have the ability to do just that.

And with the global imperative to address climate change becoming increasingly critical, research breakthroughs—such as the one converting carbon dioxide into formic acid to be used as a transportation fuel—offer hope for a truly sustainable future. The University of Auckland’s work in this field marks a significant step towards achieving carbon neutrality and mitigating the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions.

Both should be welcomed as much needed, “material” changes in our quest for an enticingly exciting, particularly promising and strategically sustainable future.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,