When it comes to clothing, being both environmentally-conscious and fashion-conscious can be tricky – the one emphasizes reusing and recycling, while the other is all about casting things off as soon as they're no longer in vogue. Unwanted clothes can be given away, of course, but they still ultimately end up in the landfill. That's why scientists from Finland's Aalto University have devised a method of essentially "melting down" old clothes to make new material.

One of the challenges of textile recycling lies in the fact that clothing is often made of fabric blends, such as cotton-polyester. With this in mind, the Aalto team turned to an ionic liquid (i.e: a liquid salt) known as 1,5-diazabicyclo[4.3.0]non-5-ene acetate. Previously, it had been used to dissolve cellulose from wood pulp waste, resulting in a solution that could be spun into fibers for use in eco-friendly clothing.

This time around, the scientists used the ionic liquid to dissolve the cotton in a cotton/polyester blend fabric, rendering it down to a cellulose solution. After the polyester was filtered out, that solution could then be spun into fibers, just like the cellulose from wood pulp was.

The researchers are now looking into ways of also making new fibers from the recovered polyester, increasing the efficiency of the technology. They additionally hope to recycle the dye from discarded fabrics, and to scale the process up to a commercially-viable level. Before that can happen, however, garment manufacturers will have to become more specific when labelling their clothing, including details such as the type of dye used.

"We want to not only recycle garments, but we want to really produce the best possible textiles, so that recycled fibers are even better than native fibers," says lead scientist Dr. Herbert Sixta. His group will be presenting its findings this week in San Francisco, at the 253rd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society.