Only around 1% of old clothing is recycled—most old t-shirts and jeans eventually end up in landfills. But early next year, some new clothes made from old apparel will start to be sold at major retailers.
Renewcell is a Sweden-based company that uses discarded cotton clothing—anything that’s too worn to be resold in the secondhand market—to make a new textile called Circulose that looks and feels indistinguishable from other brand-new fabric. The startup now runs a commercial-scale chemical recycling plant that is beginning to sell its product into the textile supply chain. It hasn’t announced which brands will be the first to sell apparel made from the material next spring, but H&M took a minority stake in the company in 2017.
The technology is part of a group of new solutions for recycling that create higher-quality products than were possible to make in the past. (Right now, if you donate a pair of jeans for recycling, it might be most likely to turn into insulation, not a new pair of jeans.) “You’re getting new, virgin-quality fiber in the end,” says Harald Cavalli-Björkman, head of brand for Circulose. “Recycling textiles, until now, has been about having to accept downgraded quality, because you damage the fiber when you shred it and then you try to spin it again to yarn. So you can’t get a garment that consumers want. This is really an innovation based on the idea that if we’re going to have a significant change in the market, we can’t expect consumers to change their preferences . . . we need to be able to do that from recycled materials.”
In its factory, the company collects cotton textiles, shreds them up, and removes zippers, buttons, and other “contaminants.” The shredded cotton, which looks like lint, goes through a patented chemical process that removes dyes from the material and removes polyester, nylon, and other synthetic materials. The result is a pulp suspended in water. “If you touch it, if feels like if you forget a receipt in your pocket and wash it,” Cavalli-Björkman says.
The pulp goes through a papermaking machine to remove water, and large sheets of the cardboard-like material are sent to textile mills. The mills dissolve the pulp and force it through a shower head-like nozzle that forms it into fibers. At the mill, the final product is lyocell or viscose, materials that are usually made from wood. The mills can tweak the process to make the fabric feel more like silk or more like cotton, depending on how it will be used.
It saves resources compared to making a shirt from cotton; no land has to be used to grow plants, and the process uses as much as 99% less water. Cotton is also a heavy user of pesticides. Brands are aware that the resources required to produce cotton make it increasingly less viable for the future. “It’s basically a consensus in the textile industry that manmade cellulosic fibers are the alternative to go to, now that everybody thinks that we basically have hit peak cotton,” says Cavalli-Björkman.
“It’s apparent that the industry is waking up to the fact that they have to do something,” he says. “I think they’re ready. They just don’t know really how, because this industry is really big. It’s a long value chain. There are a lot of actors in between a brand and a raw material. And they’re kind of floundering, you know, ‘How are we going to control this?’ Right now, what they can do is demand recycled materials, and technology providers such as us have to step up and supply that and work our way through the value chain, at scale.”
Brands can also help by designing clothing with recycling in mind, he says, avoiding choices like blends of cotton and polyester. “We need to have brands start making better design decisions,” he says. Innovations in production mean that designers can more easily use natural materials to create properties like stretch in a garment, avoiding the need for synthetic fiber. Some other new recycling technology can deal with mixed materials more easily; technology from IBM, for example, can fully disassemble a cotton-polyester blend t-shirt “like a pair of molecular scissors.” But Renewcell’s process will work most easily with all-natural garments. In Europe, a group of companies is working on technology called Fibersort that can automatically sort waste textiles by fabric type. And if clothing is designed for the circular economy in the first place, the system will work more efficiently.
All of this doesn’t necessarily mean that the world’s fast fashion habits can continue without destroying the environment. The number of items of clothing purchased each year by an average global consumer grew 60% between 2000 and 2014; in roughly the same amount of time, the amount of textile waste in U.S. landfills grew nearly 68%. The Boston Consulting Group has estimated that the consumption of clothing and shoes will grow another 63% globally between 2015 and 2030.
“Fundamentally, we feel at Renewcell that that we need to increase or see more value in the clothes that we use,” says Cavalli-Björkman. “If we do use a t-shirt for just a couple of more times before we discard it, there’s a lot of sustainability benefits to be had there that you can’t really get at with just recycling.” Even if people started buying fewer clothes, there would still be more than enough supply of waste for the company to make its material. Cavalli-Björkman says that around 20-30 million tons of cotton waste is thrown out each year.
The company’s next step is to expand production with more plants. “Our target is to recycle a billion garments per year by 2025,” he says. “It’s an ambitious target, but it’s realistic.”