The fashion industry is currently responsible for the generation of 92 million tonnes of waste and 20% of the world’s wastewater. In this context, one of the major challenges facing this sector is finding solutions to improve efficiency and sustainability across the whole of the industrial process. A Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) research team, headed up by Joan Melià from the Wireless Networks (WiNe) research group, which forms part of the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3), is working on the development of a new system aimed at facilitating the mass, automated, low-cost processing of used clothing for recycling. The technology is based on the integration of wireless UHF RFID (radio frequency identification) sensors within the textiles, which will identify the composition of the clothing as well as monitor the body’s various health indicators, such as hydration or stress levels, in the wearers.
The research project is the result of a collaboration with researcher Rahul Bhattacharyya and director Sanjay Sarma from the Auto-ID Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a leading research centre in the field of RFID technology and the place that coined the term ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT). The project forms part of the MIT-Spain INDITEX Sustainability Seed Fund 2019 programme, which, with the participation of the company Inditex, supports collaborations between MIT research groups and their counterparts outside of the United States.
Boosting the circular economy in the fashion industry
The project aims to facilitate the recycling of used clothing, boost the circular economy and reduce this industry’s impact on the environment. A number of companies, such as Inditex, now provide consumers with the option of sending their unwanted clothing to their establishments for reuse or recycling. However, the management of this kind of collection and recycling service on a mass scale represents a significant challenge, as, for example, textiles such as cotton, linen and polyester, which account for 90% of the raw materials used, all require different processing techniques. “This new technology will enable the clothing to be automatically sorted according to its composition, thereby improving the efficiency of the whole process; this could represent a key step in the efforts being made to increase the sustainability and efficiency of the fashion industry and related sectors such as the retail trade,” explained Melià, professor at the UOC Faculty of Computer Science, Multimedia and Telecommunications.
A low-cost and easily scalable technology
The researchers are using an RFID communication technology-based system in the development of the project, which the WiNe group has already successfully applied in the detection of water leaks in industrial environments. It involves the use of sensors in the form of labels that operate without batteries and are able to collect and transmit information to a receiver via an antenna.
Among its other advantages, this technology benefits from being low-cost and viable for adoption within the industry, as the researcher pointed out: “The labels cost just a few cents, so it’s a technology that is highly scalable for mass production. The system also forms part of many logistics processes, including those corresponding to the textile and fashion world, which means the results of the project can be integrated into the relevant industrial processes without much additional cost.”
The technology being developed as part of the project, which is scheduled to run until August 2021, is currently in the preliminary design phase, with design evaluation due to begin later this year.