Piles of discarded fabric from mocked-up samples and leftover scraps are unavoidable in Iowa State's apparel design studios, and Rachel Eike knows where unwanted textiles end up far too often.
"Textiles are a massive contributor to landfill waste," said Eike, an assistant professor of apparel, events and hospitality management whose research includes textile sustainability.
That's why Eike has spearheaded gathering textile waste produced in LeBaron Hall to sort out and shred natural fabrics -- most of it unprinted, unbleached cotton -- to be used either directly in the university's composting facility or first as animal bedding in ISU cattle stalls and then as compost fodder.
With the help of student volunteers, the effort diverts as much as 125 pounds of textiles per year from the landfill, Eike said. Until this summer, when she purchased a small industrial shredder, they had been shredding the discarded textiles by hand since spring 2019, using scissors and small industrial cutting knives
"We're trying to lead by example. If we care about where textiles end up, hopefully our students will, too," she said.
Cardboard project pending
Eike's initiative follows the lead of a three-month 2019 pilot, when cardboard collected for recycling campuswide was shredded for use as bedding at the beef nutrition farm a few miles northwest of Ames. In both cases, the shreds worked well in stalls and subsequently in the compost facility, contributing to the university's zero-waste goal to divert 85% of campus waste from landfills by 2025.
"We're showing there's treasure in some of the things we're throwing away," said recycling and special events coordinator Ayodeji Oluwalana, who oversees the zero-waste initiative and coordinated the cardboard shredding project.
To shred cardboard for bedding campuswide on a permanent basis, the program needs to be more financially sustainable. A simple building and a suitably sized shredder would cost roughly $1 million. Annual operation costs are estimated to run a deficit of about $70,000, procurement director Cory Harms said.
One unknown with the operating cost projection is whether there would be a market for selling bedding. The university generated more than 200 tons of recycled cardboard in fiscal year 2020 and potentially could take in cardboard from other local institutions to sell the shredded product to livestock producers.
"There may be a better revenue stream than we know, but we don't know what the demand would be because it's a new use for cardboard," Harms said. "I think there's potential, but it's taking a leap and that's difficult."
The financial impact isn't the only consideration, Harms said. Being a leading innovator in reusing cardboard has value, especially at a time when even recycled cardboard ends up in landfills sometimes due to challenging market conditions.
"There's a big carbon impact in moving this stuff to maybe be recycled," he said.
Eike's project points to another possible model for a shredding initiative: smaller on-site hubs. When the team shreds textiles once a week, they fill any remaining space in the containers with shredded cardboard. Oluwalana said data from this differing approach could be useful in a grant application to help pay for the larger-scale cardboard diversion program. And it may serve as an inspiration, too.
“I hope initiatives like this will continue to stir waves of behavioral changes when it comes to what people consider waste, leading to the attainment of a zero-waste campus," Oluwalana said.
While the shredding will continue, so will identifying other ways to repurpose cast-off cloth, Eike said. A doctoral student is trying to make an alternative to leather from discarded cotton and paper materials, and another student group is cutting discarded T-shirts into yarn for creating upcycled products.
"I'd love to bring these shreds in as a resource and have students experiment with it," she said.
Other efforts aim to prevent new textiles from needing to be produced. Students organized a fabric swap in September and are planning a clothing swap around winter break, Eike said.
"They're trying to find life from things that are discarded or unwanted," she said.