Recycling - Technological Breakthroughs for Fashion

Closing the fashion loop through recycling

The fashion industry has come to recognise the fundamental importance to shift from a linear to circular approach, whereby waste and pollution are designed out, materials and products are kept in use for as long as possible, and the natural systems are regenerated. Sustainable design, pollution free dye-houses and take-back schemes are all enablers of circular fashion, yet, recycling plays a particularly crucial part in truly closing this loop. Currently, less than 1% of clothing is recycled into new garments and only 20% of textiles are recycled. Clearly, the industry is far from where it needs to be, this is because of both fragmented supply-chain and limitations on readily available recycling technologies. Nevertheless, rapid development and recent technology breakthroughs now provide unprecedented opportunities for change.

Recycling 101

Today, there are two main ways to recycle textile fibre: mechanically and chemically. Mechanical recycling involves shredding the material to turn it into a near fibrous form that can be re-spun. However, the shredding process shortens the fibre and weakens its strength. As such, mechanically recycled fibres often need to be mixed with virgin fibres (especially in the case of cotton and wool) and have limited circularity.

While mechanical recycling is more commonly used due to the fact the technology is more developed and less expensive, there are obvious limitations, namely:

  1. Inferior quality to virgin fibres – Mechanical recycling damages fibre structure and reduces the quality after each round of recycling
  2. Limitation on the types of feedstock – Till recently, only cotton, wool, polyester and nylon can be mechanically recycled
  3. Inability to separate blended fibre – This limit the volume of recyclable textiles, and much of the blended fabrics are actually ‘down-cycled’ into lower value textile such as carpet and insulation

These limitations can be overcome with chemical recycling, which as the name suggests, entails a chemical process that de-polymerise the material into its monomer components, such that only the wanted raw material are retrieved to produce new filaments, these are then transformed into yarns and fabrics. Chemically recycled fibres can achieve the same quality as virgin fibres and can be recycled several times without losing quality.

Innovations and technological breakthroughs

Mechanical recycling

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With continuous technology advancement, many mills can now produce near virgin quality natural fibres through mechanical recycling, without needing to blend in virgin fibres. Good examples include Euromaglia (specialises in recycled cashmere and wool fabrics) and EcoSimple (produces a wide range of patterned recycled cotton and linen fabrics).

Meanwhile, other suppliers have worked on innovations that enable mechanical recycling of new types of feedstock. Mantero, one of Italy’s leading silk supplier, launched Resilk® in 2020, a new fibre type made from 100% recycled silk with the shine of silk but hand-feel of cashmere. Recyc Leather is another such supplier who developed the technologies that convert leather garden glove off-cuts into different types of leather grains suitable of high value accessories such as handbags and shoes.

Chemically recycled synthetics

Technologies to chemically recycle synthetics have been developed for quite some time, but have only become more widely available in recent years, particularly for recycled post-consumer nylon (i.e. made from fishing nets and nylon waste). Taiwan’s chemical conglomerate Formosa and Italy’s Aquafil Group are the two main companies who use their proprietary chemical recycling technologies and to produce chemically recycled nylon at commercial scale. In particular, Aquafil sell their recycled nylon yarn Econyl® to a wide network of fabric mills, such as Recyctex.

Chemically recycled blended fibre

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Worn Again, is a textile technology company focusing on recycling blended fibre. Its technology can separate and recapture polyester (PET) and cotton from discarded, low-value clothing to produce virgin-equivalent, cost competitive polyester and cellulosic raw materials for continual recycling. Worn Again formed a partnership with Kering Group and H&M in late 2019 and also received strategic investments to accelerate the commercialisation of its technology, rapid expansion is planned for after its demo plant expected in 2021.

Chemical recycled natural fibre

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Until recently, chemical recycling of natural fibre has mostly been done at the lab scale as it was not yet technologically or commercially mature. However, a number of innovators have made significant advancements and launched consortium projects in the past few years, which will likely accelerate the commercialisation and broader adoption of chemical recycling of natural fibre

One of the innovator gaining market traction is Evrnu, who invented a new technology that recycles post-consumer cotton textile waste, purifying and then pulping it to create premium, renewable fibre that is ‘finer denier than silk and strong than cotton’, according to Evrnu founder Stacy Flynn. Its technology reduces CO2 emissions by 90% compared to polyester production, and water usage by 98% compared to traditional cotton fibre. Evrnu partnered with Levi’s Strauss & Co. in 2016 and created Levi’s 511 prototype by using 5 discarded cotton t-shirts. The company is now raising Series B funding and plans to scale through licensing its technology to supply-chain partners.

Another similar innovator is Renewcell, whose chemical recycling technology dissolves used cotton and other natural fibre and removes contaminants to produce a new cellulosic fibre called Circulose ® pulp, which can then be made into virgin quality viscose or lyocell fabrics. Renewcell opened its first industrial scale plant in Sweden and is now expanding its facility after a successful listing on the Nasdaq in November 2020. Circulose® is expected to become readily available to spinners and mills in the near future.

Lenzing Group also launched a new fibre named Refibra™, produced from a mix of pulp from chemically recycled cotton scraps (20%) and eucalyptus wood pulp (80%), resulting in a new TENCEL™ Lyocell fibre type. Refibra™ is the first cellulose fibre including recycled material that can be produced on a commercial scale and can be found in fabrics from suppliers such as Pyrates.

Final words

While there remain some barriers to recycling, such as inefficient waste collection and sorting system, low market price for virgin materials weakening demand for recycled materials, new recycling innovations are gaining momentum and funding gaps are being bridged to catalyse commercial scaling of these technologies. Perhaps, the moment is finally ripe for meaningful progress to close the loop in fashion.