Will we ever be able to recycle our clothes like an aluminum can? | Popgen Tech
This article is part of a research series Responsible fashionand innovative efforts to solve problems facing the fashion industry.
The new textile recycling plant opened by Renewcell in the small coastal town of Sundsvall, Sweden, is so large that employees travel from one end of the production line to the other on bicycles.
Large bales of cotton waste are dumped onto conveyor belts, shredded and then chemically broken down into a wet pulp. This slurry, known as soluble pulp, is then bleached, dried, stamped into sheets similar to recycled kraft paper under the Circulose brand and sent to manufacturers to be made into textiles such as viscose for clothing.
Until now, most clothing marketed as made from recycled materials contained only a small percentage of recycled cotton or was made from water bottles, fishing nets and old carpets. (Technology exists to recycle polyester into polyester, but it is too expensive and rarely used.)
The Renewcell factory is one of the first steps towards a system that transforms old clothes into new, high-quality clothes made entirely from recycled fabric. It also helps deal with the mountains of textile waste that accumulate around the world and can help reduce the amount of trees harvested from environmentally sensitive forests to produce fashion fabrics. (According to Canopy, a Canadian non-profit that works with the paper and fashion industries to reduce deforestation, more than 200 million trees are cut down each year to produce soluble cellulose for man-made cellulosic fabrics, including rayon, viscose, modal, and lyocell.)
About half a dozen startups around the world are focused on commercial textile recycling, and Renewcell was the first to open.
Many consumers seem to be increasingly concerned about what happens to their old clothes, and fashion companies are looking for ways to continue to expand while delivering on promises to reduce their negative impact on the environment and achieve a circular system where clothes are spun through a loop rather than out of is sent to the dump. The European Union has committed to expanding textile collection for all member states by 2025, which is expected to significantly increase the flow of fashion waste that needs a destination.
“It’s exciting,” Ashley Holding, a sustainable textiles consultant and founder of Circuvate, said of the factory’s opening. “It’s great to see them get to that stage.”
The rise of unwanted goods
Circular fashion wasn’t always so complicated. Before industrialization, most people made their own clothes from all-natural materials. According to a 2018 study by the University of Brighton, rich people repurposed and passed on their clothes to servants and then to villagers who patched them up until they were wearable and then traded them to rag pickers. In Europe, these rags were collected in warehouses and then sent to be processed into paper or wool for affordable blankets and coats.
With the industrialization of fashion in the late 19th century, people who used to make clothes at home began buying some of their clothes, wrote Adam Minter, author of Secondhand: Journeys in the New World’s Garage Sale. email.
“When clothes fell in value and women started working in industry, consumers had less incentive and less time to mend and repair,” Mr. Minter said.
There was an increased flow of unwanted goods, and the Salvation Army, which opened in New York in the late 19th century, began raising money for charitable projects by accepting, repairing and reselling clothing and household items, Mr. Minter said. Goodwill was founded around the same time as the Boston church’s charity program.
“By the 1910s, the volume of unwanted clothes and other consumer goods was so great that charities refused to repair them,” Mr Minter said.
Today, most of our clothes end up in landfills, said Maxine Bedat, author of the 2021 book Revealed: The Life and Death of Clothes. It’s hard to get a reliable figure on how much is being thrown away, especially in the United States. But, she said, “we’re still primarily throwing it away.”
More data is available for Europe. According to a recent study by Fashion for Good, an average of 62 percent of clothing sold annually in six Western European countries ends up in landfills or incinerators.
According to Ms. Bedat, what doesn’t get thrown away mostly goes to organizations like Goodwill, which take what can’t be sold to commercial sorting companies. Wearable clothing is sold to resale markets in developing countries, while unwearable textiles are turned into rags and lower-quality fibers for things like insulation. Clothing donated to the collections of farmers’ markets and fast-fashion brands through return programs also typically ends up in these commercial sorting companies, Ms. Bedat said.
About 40 percent of what the Western world sends to one of the largest resale markets in Accra, Ghana, is considered trash, according to the Or Foundation, which advocates for better management of clothing waste. Mountains of old clothes have been photographed on beaches, in garbage dumps, and in the deserts of Africa and Latin America.
“The resale market is collapsing under the weight of the amount of rubbish they’re getting,” said Rachel Kibbe, chief executive of consultancy Circular Services Group. “We have such enterprises that de facto become waste managers.”
Currently, very little textile waste becomes new clothing. In Western Europe, according to Fashion for Good, only 2 percent of collected textiles—pure wool, pure cotton, and acrylic—are mechanically recycled into new textiles, mostly dirty wool disaster blankets and low-quality cotton that must be mixed with cotton. of the first kind for new textile products. Combined with low levies, this means that less than 1 percent of clothing sold in Western Europe is recycled into new fibers.
“We have to realize the fact that your clothes, when you part with them, can end up in someone’s desert, in someone’s body of water, in someone’s field,” Ms Kibe said.
Textile recycling race
The new Renewcell factory accepts only pure cotton textile waste, and many garments are made from synthetic blends. But it will be able to take quite a lot – more than 120 thousand tons a year. According to a recent study by Fashion for Good, about 163,000 metric tons of low-value cotton waste ready for chemical processing flows out of six Western European countries every year.
Using fabrics sourced from denim mills and second-hand retailers, the mill produces sheets of dried soluble cellulose called Circulose, which it sells as the main ingredient for man-made cellulose fabrics such as viscose, viscose and modal.
“We are creating a cycle in the fashion industry,” said Patrik Lundström, chief executive officer of Renewcell. “Circularity doesn’t really exist in the fashion industry today. We have been talking about this environmental impact for the last 20 years. We have very, very little progress so far.”
Renewcell’s founding researchers Mikael Lindström and Gunnar Henriksson at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm first developed the technology for processing cotton waste in 2012.
The company produced enough recycled fabric for the dress in 2014 and built a demonstration plant in 2017. This attracted the interest of brands such as Stella McCartney, who funded a life-cycle analysis that showed Circulose had the lowest climate impact of 10 different synthetic cellulose fibers. H&M became a minority shareholder of the company in 2017.
The company went public and listed in Sweden on Nasdaq’s first Nordic premier growth market in 2020. H&M, Levi Strauss and Bestseller, an international clothing chain based in Denmark, have committed to incorporating Circulose into their clothing. (In 2021, Levi’s debuted a capsule collection of jeans made with 16 percent Circulose.)
“The circulose that comes out is very valuable because it’s a recycled fabric, but it behaves like a virgin,” said Paul Faulks-Arellano, founder of Circuthon, a closed-loop economy management consultancy.
Several other companies are also looking to produce recycled fabrics on a commercial scale. Two Finnish startups, Spinnova and Infinited Fiber Company, have patented technologies for converting plant waste into fabrics that feel and feel like cotton. Spinnova said its commercial plant will be operational by 2024. Infinited hopes to open in 2026. American startup Evrnu has raised $31 million for its recycling technology and expects to be open by 2024, according to the company.
The technology for processing polyester/cotton blends is a little behind, and these blends make up a large portion of the old clothes that are thrown away. Australian startup BlockTexx says it is building the first commercial-scale recycling plant that can process poly-cotton blends and hopes to open it in 2023.
British startup Worn Again Technologies said in October that it had received more than $30 million in funding and is building a plant in Switzerland to separate and recycle mixed textiles. US startup Circ announced in July that it had raised more than $30 million in a funding round led by Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures, which included an investment from Inditex, the parent company of Zara.
“Suddenly, there was momentum,” said Kathleen Redeman, director of innovation platform Fashion for Good, a sustainable fashion technology accelerator. “But I think we’re still at the beginning. At this stage, they are still fighting for money.”
Consulting firm McKinsey estimated in a 2022 report that six to seven billion euros would need to be invested by 2030 to treat at least 18 percent of the textile waste generated in Europe.
Critics point out that the most sustainable thing would be to re-wear, repair and recycle fabrics into new clothes, as people did in the 19th century.
Even the hydro-powered Renewcell doesn’t completely close the loop because it doesn’t turn cotton into cotton. (Although some brands, like Levi’s, have used Circulose to partially replace cotton in some products, and lab tests show the process can go through up to seven times, similar to paper recycling.)
“Recycling materials is energy-intensive,” Mr. Faulks-Arellano said. “If we were smart, we would just cut all the denim, all the t-shirts and just make them into new clothes. I mean, there are a lot of really good recycled denim companies out there. But big business wants a new fabric.”
Ms. Redeman believes it will be at least another decade before anyone can recycle a worn-out sweatshirt the way they can recycle a soda can. She said there needs to be more capital investment in building recycling plants, a greater commitment by brands to buy recycled fibers and a commitment by clothing manufacturers to integrate recycled products into the supply chain.
Ms. Redeman said that in the next 10 years, she “will feel comfortable that if I put this sweater in the recycling bin, it won’t go somewhere bad.” But in the United States, she says, progress depends on the political landscape: “He governs who governs.”
Mr. Holding predicts that by 2050 we will have a global textile-to-textile recycling infrastructure.
While Renewcell is an important event, “it’s still a drop in the bucket,” he said, “compared to the amount of textile raw material that exists and the amount of material that is produced every year.”