A Fibre-to-fibre Recycling Programme to Form a Closed-loop for Textiles

In 2015, 55% of global textiles were made of polyester while 28% were cotton. These blended products are popular in the textile and clothing market. Eco-friendly solutions to textile waste of polyester-cotton blends help solve the problem of waste ending up in landfills.

The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) has joined hands with the non-profit H&M Foundation to work towards groundbreaking solutions to recycling blended textiles into new fibres and yarns through a hydrothermal process and a biological method. This solution is a major breakthrough in the journey towards a closed loop for textiles.

Hydrothermal Process

The aim of the partnership is to find at least one ready technology to recycle clothes made from blended textiles within a four-year project period. One year into the partnership, HKRITA has together with Ehime University and Shinshu University in Japan, successfully developed a hydrothermal process to fully separate and recycle cotton and polyester blends.

“By being able to upcycle used textiles into new high value textiles, we no-longer need to solely rely on virgin materials to dress a growing world population. This is a major breakthrough in the pursuit of a fashion industry operating within the planetary boundaries,” says Mr Edwin Keh, Chief Executive Officer of The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA).

The hydrothermal process uses only heat, water and less than 5% of a biodegradable green chemical, to self-separate cotton and polyester blends. The recovered polyester material can be reused directly, almost without any quality loss. This fibre-to-fibre recycling method is cost effective, and there’s no secondary pollution to the environment, ensuring the life of the recycled material is prolonged in a sustainable way.

“For too long the fashion industry has not been able to properly recycle its products. This very encouraging breakthrough on separation and recycling of textile blends has the potential to change that. It is the customers' collecting old garments that have enabled this important research lead by The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel. We are very excited to now start to scale-up this technology and prove commercial viability,“ says Erik Bang, Innovation Lead at H&M Foundation.

Mr Keh believes the recycling projects are a key breakthrough in the pursuit of a sustainable development of the fashion industry
Mr Bang states that the collaboration is a step forward on separation and recycling of textile blends

When finalised, the technology will be licensed widely to ensure broad market access and maximum impact. It will benefit the environment as well as people and communities.

Biological Treatment

Another project is also making use of biological method to carry out textile waste recycling. The project, led by Dr Carol Lin of School of Energy and Environment at the City University of Hong Kong, has developed a circular textiles biorefinery strategy with biological technologies to recycle blended textiles into new yarns. Fermentable glucose and polyester fibres from textile waste will be recovered through the bioprocessing. This new approach to textile waste treatment includes the pre-treatment and the enzymatic hydrolysis process. The recovered sugar can be used to produce biodegradable products such as biosurfactant (as a cleaning agent) and bio-based polymers.

A Comprehensive Effort for Textile Recycling

The H&M Foundation initiated the partnership with HKRITA in September 2016. It is backed by an estimated 5.8 million euros of funding, with HKRITA conducting the research and work to commercialise the outcomes. The Innovation and Technology Fund of the Hong Kong SAR Government also provides additional substantial funding and support. The total project investment is estimated to around 30 million euros during the four-year collaboration (2016-2020), which makes it one of the biggest and most comprehensive efforts ever for textile recycling.

The exact financial contribution from H&M Foundation is determined by the annual surplus from H&M’s global in-store garment collecting program, which is donated to H&M Foundation. To date the H&M Foundation has donated 2.4 million euros to HKRITA.

A researcher retrieves the treated PET fibres from the reactor
A researcher studies the fibre extracted from the blended textile
Textile waste to be recycled through the biological method