Textiles recycling gaining global investments

Projects in locations ranging from Pennsylvania to Taiwan are targeting landfill diversion options for discarded clothing and fabric.

handm looop recycling
Global retailer H&M is putting a garment recycling system developed by HKRITA on display at a Stockholm store.
Photo provided by the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles & Apparel (HKRITA).

Research and investments are being made in several parts of the world to use mechanical recycling processes to turn discarded clothing and fabric into new products.

Taipei, Taiwan-based SAYA (and its parent company Nan Ya Plastics) refers to itself as “the world’s largest manufacturer of recycled PET, repurposing over 75 billion bottles every year.” Now, under the SAYA brand, the firm says it is engaging in research and development (R&D) efforts “to focus on the critical recycling and sustainability issues that face the textile and garment industry and redefine what’s possible in renewal.”

The company says it has been seeking textile “scrap, cutting waste, overstock fabric and soon, used garments” to convert into new products via some of its newly developed methods.

SAYA says its RSCUW process “reduces waste by 30 percent per yard by recycling cutting scraps and overstock rolls of fabric, which has historically ended up in landfills or is stored indefinitely in warehouses.”

Its RSCUW RAW product “is made from recycled fabric cutting scrap and colored PET bottles retaining their original color. The resulting knit or woven fabric has a unique heathered effect in shades from gray to nearly black.”

In development is the Garma process, which SAYA says will be available in late 2021. “This complex recycling process of used post-consumer garments will streamline the garment recycling by offering turnkey retail to fiber solutions to select brand partners.”

The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles & Apparel (HKRITA), in that South China special administrative region, has had a Garment-to-Garment Recycle System (G2G) on display there for a couple of years.

Textile recycling has gone beyond the pilot stage for HKRITA, which helped create a larger-scale textile recycling system in cooperation with Hong Kong-based Novetex Textiles Ltd., a commercial-scale yarn spinner.

The facility in Hong Kong’s New Territories is known as both the Novetex Upcycling Factory and The Billie System. When it was “soft launched” in September 2018, Novetex billed it as “Hong Kong’s first new local spinning mill in half a century.”

HKRITA has for several years worked with and been funded in part by the H&M Foundation, which is affiliated with Sweden-based global clothing retailer H&M (Hennes & Mauritz AB). Now, the entities have combined to create “Looop,” which HKRITA calls “the first retail model of the G2G system.” It will be launched at an H&M store in Stockholm on October 12.

In the Stockholm G2G system, customers can bring their old clothes, which will then be broken down into fibers and yarns to become the raw material for knitted new clothes. Customers can watch the entire end-to-end process in real-time in the store, according to HKRITA.

“HKRITA is excited to collaborate with our Swedish partners to bring our research project to life,” says Edwin Keh, CEO of HKRITA. “We hope systems like the G2G will inspire even more creative solutions to our environmental challenges. By providing new life to our old clothes we can demonstrate that it is possible to use less resources and repurpose what we have. The G2G system allows customers to take charge of the reuse of their own wardrobe. Sustainability can be personal, and we can actively participate in the process. It is hoped that G2G will help retailers ‘do well and do good’ at the same time.”

Finland-based Infinited Fiber Co., founded in 2016, says it is commercializing what it calls “a breakthrough textile recycling technology that offers a solution for the massive piles of used clothes currently being incinerated and piling up at landfills.”

The patented technology can convert discarded textiles, used cardboard or agricultural waste like straw and “regenerate it into high-quality fibers with the look and feel of cotton,” says the company. “This can be done over and over again while retaining the high quality of the fibers.”

Infinited’s regenerated fibers were featured in early October in a Paris fashion show in clothing designed by London-based Reuben Selby. Working with Hannah Sheridan as head of design, Reuben Selby’s collection is based in part on an “ideology [with] a desire to highlight the radical shifts required to bring the fashion industry into a new era of sustainability,” says Infinited.

“For my generation, and for me personally, designing a collection with anything but the highest sustainability credentials would just be wrong,” says the brand’s founder and creative director Reuben Selby.

He continues, “I believe it is my duty to do everything the right way when it comes to my brand, and to also encourage other brands to follow suit. I am proud to work with and support Infinited Fiber Co.’s cutting-edge technology, which can help me and the industry as a whole find solutions for some of the biggest problems of our time, and move toward zero waste and circularity.”

In Lancaster, Pennsylvania, recycling leather is the focus of Frank Fox and Tom Tymon and their recently formed company Sustainable Composites LLC. In retirement, the duo says they “found themselves wondering how they could use their chemistry, engineering and new product development backgrounds to help improve the health of the planet. They soon identified their target: leather waste.”

Fox and Tymon drew upon their experience in textile engineering to develop a process that could recycle some of the 25 to 60 percent of the leather that typically is discarded as scrap during clothing and accessory manufacturing.

According to Sustainable Composites, that would put a dent in the 1.75 million tons of leather waste sent to landfills or incinerators every year and “provide a quality, sustainable alternative for makers of leather goods.”

The company says it took more than five years and $3 million in R&D, but their result is “enspire leather,” which Sustainable Composites calls “a recycled leather product that not only replicates the look, feel, smell and performance of tanned hide at half the cost, but also dramatically reduces the amount of material that winds up on the cutting room floor, because it is supplied in 54-inch rolls free of holes and other defects.”

The patented process involves grinding up discarded leather scraps and pressing them into sheets made from 100 percent leather fibers, says the company.

According to Sustainable Composites, “one of the first adopters” has been New Hampshire-based Timberland Shoes. Overall, the company says it sees “potential applications ranging from footwear and clothing to small leather goods, furniture and automotive seats.”  

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