Laboratory-scale research for the REACT project has revealed exciting results at Ghent University in Belgium and the University of Bergamo in Italy.

At these research centres, focus was placed on the removal of chemical finishes that are present on the waste acrylic fabrics collected by Parà. These chemical finishes provide extra properties to the fabrics such as water repellence, dimensional stability and resistance against micro-organisms, which are crucial for the intended outdoor use of these fabrics as awnings, furnishings, umbrellas, etc. Yet at the same time, these chemical finishes hinder the recycling process (that same water repellence can prevent cleaning, for example) and prevent the fabrics from being recycled into fibres for other, non-outdoor applications. As such, it is important to be able to fully remove the present chemical finishes early on in the recycling process.

The REACT project aims to mechanically recycle waste acrylic fabrics into new fabrics, without destroying the fibres in the process, thus recuperating the fibres in their entirety and avoiding chemical recycling, which is paired with re-extrusion steps in which hazardous, toxic solvents (e.g. dimethylformamide) are used. For this mechanical recycling process to yield high-quality fabrics, the fibres should remain intact and keep their mechanical properties, meaning that a chemical finish removal process must avoid damaging the fibres.

Researchers at Ghent University and the University of Bergamo have succeeded in characterising the fibres and chemical finishes, and have designed reactions to remove these finishes from the fabrics by chemical treatments involving safe, environmentally friendly solvents and reagents. Preliminary laboratory-scale experiments have revealed extremely promising results: by varying process parameters, up to 100% of the chemical finishes can be removed without inflicting any real damage on the fibres.

While these results show that research is assuredly on the right track, more thorough development is necessary to turn the proposed treatments into commercially usable processes. To this end, Ghent University is fine-tuning the process parameters through experimental design, and is investigating any possible fibre damage in more detail, while the University of Bergamo is exploring sequential treatments and different reagents to improve the chemical finish removal efficiency. All things considered, the consortium is very eager to pursue this promising line of research, and strongly believes in this project.