Closing the Circle on Textiles

Lily Lin

The world generates 92 million tons of textile waste annually, with an estimated increase of 60% to 147 million tons in 2030. Textile waste management is a global challenge that that is likely to become a source of regulatory and reputational risk. Just ask Burberry after burning £28M of products, or H&M who was called out for burning an average of 12 tons of unsold product a year. If dealt with correctly, textile waste could become a business opportunity. According to an Ellen MacArthur Foundation report, an increase in textile recycling (87% of material used for clothing production is landfilled or incinerated after its final use) represents an opportunity for the industry to capture some of the value in more than USD $100 billion worth of materials lost from the system every year. The material that is recycled from textiles is generally used in lower value applications, and when recycled materials are used as inputs to make textiles (2% of the time), they come mostly from recycled PET bottles.

Corporate Action and Regulation

While the industry moves towards incorporating sustainable raw materials such as bio-based materials, leading brands are increasingly looking to close the loop on fashion. Through participating in the 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment, 41 brands have committed to increasing their use of recycled post-consumer textile fiber by 2020. In addition, H&M and Inditex (Zara) have committed to investing USD $6.8 million and USD $3.5 million in textile recycling technologies, respectively.

Regulatory pressure is likely to increase in the near future. The European Commission and China have recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Circular Economy. Both sides intend to cooperate through yearly high-level policy dialogue, multilateral meetings incorporating broad stakeholders, and engaging in capacity building.

Technological Breakthroughs

The industry has struggled with recycling. Post-consumer textiles are often made of blended materials, consisting of a mixture of natural and synthetic fibers, bound by various dyes and surface treatments, and adorned with decorative materials. Past textile recycling efforts have been mechanical in nature – usually a labor-intensive sorting process to group materials by color and material, and shredding and processing to produce an output of shorter and lower quality fiber. To reproduce new fabric, this lower quality fiber needs to be mixed with high quantities of high quality virgin material. Not the most efficient process.

Recent progress in chemical recycling can now recover polymers or monomers from scrap textile, allowing materials to be recycled without any quality loss. These technologies have the potential to close the loop, allowing materials to be recycled an infinite number of times. Further innovation includes recycling blended textiles, something that has not been accomplished before.

Re:newcell recycles high cellulosic content garments, including cotton and other natural fibers. The company has raised USD $11.9 million and launched its demonstration plant with a technical output of 7,000 tons per year in Sweden in May.
Evrnu has developed a recycling technology for post-consumer cotton textile waste to reproduce fiber with customizable diameter and cross-sectional shape. Evrnu has partnered with Levi to produce the Levi’s 511 jeans. Evrnu has also engaged in a partnership with Target, who will fund and become an early adopter of its technology.
JIAREN New Materials works with pre- and post-consumer polyester textiles to produce 25,000 tons of regenerated fiber annually. JIAREN started with TEIJIN’s Eco CircleTM chemical cyclic regenerative system technology. Through further investment into process and equipment technologies, the company was able to lower the production cost of regenerated polyester by 60%. JIAREN was formed through a joint venture between Jinggong Holding Group and Teijin.
Worn Again has developed a recycling technology that can handle pure and blended polyester and cellulosic textiles. The technology can handle up to 20% of other materials and produces pure outputs. Worn Again raised USD $6.6 million just this month, which will allow them to scale up and go to market quicker.

Scaling up: Re:newcell’s New Demonstration Plant

Mattias Jonsson, the CEO of Re:newcell, is currently fine tuning his technology at a demonstration plant in Kristinehamn SE, a plant that has a technical capacity of 7,000 tons per annum, equivalent to 30 million t-shirts. The product, Re:newcell pulp, is produced from recycling pre- and post-consumer textile waste and has a much higher cellulosic content compared to standard grade pulp (usually made from timber and used by companies like the Lenzing Group). Currently, the wood-based cellulose fibers make up about 6% of the global market. The high-grade cellulosic content from Re:newcell allows stronger and more durable products to be created, providing their pulp to spinners who then create fibers and yarns which are used to make fabric. The company is working with several global textile brands, including H&M, to open doors and create demand for this innovative feedstock. Further, global partnership is on Jonsson’s agenda, with a particular focus on customers in Southeast Asia, and the company is actively seeking additional funding on top of the initial base of $11.9M.

Corporate R&D and Collaboration in Textile Recycling

Ryan Wong, the Business Development Manager with HKRITA (The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textile and Apparel), told us more about their collaboration with H&M Foundation, working to commercialize blended textile recycling. Phase One of the hydrothermal treatment project has been completed and now the chemical recycling technology is being trialed at pre-industrial scale. Mr. Wong is confident that the cost of closed-loop textile recycling will drop dramatically with scale because the inputs (post-consumer textiles) are practically free and reagents are recyclable. At the end of the partnership, the IP rights will be owned by HKRITA, with the technology available for licensing.

Textile waste, with 293 tons of it generated everyday day, is a significant problem for Hong Kong, and Mr. Wong emphasized that the larger goal for the industry is to look at the big picture of integrating mechanical, chemical and biological recycling technologies. Chemical and biological methods are both capable of recycling blended textiles to produce pure streams of raw materials, but because of the differences in equipment set-up, they would retro-fit differently into existing equipment depending on factory set-ups. Development of different technologies would accelerate industry wide adoption of recycling practices.

Outlook

In addition to the companies mentioned above, Tyton BioSciences, The Infinited Fiber Company and Ambercycle are examples of companies in earlier stage development working on promising technologies. With technological breakthroughs, society interest and commitment from apparel giants, the textiles industry is closer to closing the circle.