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Breaking barriers for textile recycling

For the first time textile blends can be recycled at scale. Together with our ambitious research partner HKRITA, the forward-thinking textile manufacturer Kahatex, and a research team made up of retired, but exceptionally passionate and committed scientists – the fashion industry has taken a huge leap forward in the quest on creating a more sustainable fashion future.

Dropping blend textiles in the Green Machine

This week, the world’s first collection made of recycled textiles from the Green Machine is released. To reach this milestone, it took:

  • a bold vision,
  • a risk-loving and impatient funder,
  • an ever-optimistic research partner,
  • a group of retired Japanese scientists,
  • a pilot lab in Hong Kong,
  • a brave supplier in Indonesia,
  • and a forward-thinking brand in Sweden.

Sounds interesting, right? But let’s first rewind to give a little recap.

Recycling blends the holy grail

The global consumption of fashion is increasing at a staggering pace. With this speed, the world will soon run out of resources to make new garments of. The first and foremost important step we should all take is to wear the garments in our wardrobe more often. We should also find ways to extend its life by repair, give away or sell as second-hand.

However, we still have mountains of garments that are thrown away every day and we need to find ways to put them back into the system again.

Most clothes we wear are made of blend textiles, and the most common blend is cotton and polyester. Recycling 100% wool or cotton for example is not so difficult, but recycling blends are much more challenging as you need to separate the different materials, which are blended in the thread and yarn, from each other.

“We started working with HKRITA back in 2016. We knew we wanted to focus on recycling, and we discussed where we could have the biggest impact,” says Erik Bang, Innovation Lead at H&M Foundation. “Finding a commercially attractive technology that could successfully recycle cotton and polyester blends without any quality loss in a sustainable way was the simple answer. It’s the most common fibers and the most common type of textile so solving it would make a major difference. But no one knew how to do it.”

Recycling knowledge

Professor Kanji Kanjiwara
Professor Kanji Kanjiwara

HKRITA contacted Kanji Kanjiwara, professor at the Faculty of Textile Science and Technology at Shinshu University in Japan, who immediately signed up to solve the task. “When Professor Kanji presented his team to us, we were surprised to find out that he had summoned up a group of retired engineers he knew,” remembers Erik.

“We were surprised to find out that he had summoned up a group of retired engineers he knew.”

Erik Bang, H&M Foundation

Professor Kanji gives a humble impression. But once he starts talking, you realise that his experience and knowledge goes deep and wide. Why did he choose to work with a team of 80-year old engineers?

“Experience is the most important factor when designing and constructing a real system,” says Professor Kanji. “The academic people can know the fundamental requirements for a solution, but they are unable to imagine and construct an actual system because they lack the practical experience. I knew I needed these scientists and their specific skills, since they worked for over 30 years developing and operating a polyester recycling system in Japan.”

Professor Kanji sketched his idea to the engineers, who were keen to start working together again to find a solution to this problem. “In a way, we’re also recycling knowledge to solve our problems. This wealth of experience is often overlooked in today’s society,” says Professor Kanji.

500 years of experience

Core team: Erik Bang, Innovation Lead at H&M Foundation, Edwin Keh, CEO at HKRITA, Professor Kanji Kajiwara, Shinshu University (team lead of the development of the Green Machine) and Dr. Gloria Lei Yao, Director Project Development at HKRITA.
Core team: Erik Bang, Innovation Lead at H&M Foundation, Edwin Keh, CEO at HKRITA, Professor Kanji Kajiwara, Shinshu University (team lead of the development of the Green Machine) and Dr. Gloria Lei Yao, Director Project Development at HKRITA.

It took only one year until the team found a hydrothermal method which ticked all the boxes. The Green Machine was born.

“It was such a big breakthrough and frankly a relief for us as we knew we set a very ambitious goal, and I wasn’t sure how we were going to solve it. But I think it shows that innovative solutions don’t necessarily have to come from young entrepreneurs and start-ups. Together the Japanese team hold well over 500 years of experience, it’s quite extraordinary,” says Erik.

“Nobody takes innovation seriously until you scale.”

Edwin Keh, HKRITA

We had a solution and needed to take the next steps.

“Nobody takes innovation seriously until you scale,” says Edwin Keh, CEO of HKRITA. “It’s true,” echoes Erik and continues: “you can innovate and research as much as you want, but it’s not until your idea is brought to the market that it can start making a positive impact.”

Looking for a brave partner

Within two years, we moved from a recycling technology in our Japanese lab, to a larger recycling system in Tai Po, Hong Kong. Now we were confident the machine was ready to be scaled up and put in a real factory. We just needed a partner.

However, to be the first to make a big investment in a new innovation calls for courage and ambition. After many discussions with different stakeholders we found Kahatex, the largest textile manufacturer in Indonesia, who are forward-thinking and were willing to invest in this technology.

“Sustainability is growing in importance for brands and customers in the fashion industry, and we were keen to work together with H&M Foundation and HKRITA to develop the system at an industrial scale to recycle more materials,” says Andy Trisna, Director at Kahatex.

Available for anyone to use

The output: polyester fibres to the left, cellulose powder to the right.
The output: polyester fibres to the left, cellulose powder to the right.

To build a Green Machine in a real factory is a game changer for the industry. Here is why:

1. Recovering blends at scale

What’s revolutionary is that we can now recycle textile blends at scale with no quality loss. And we do it in a safe, resource and cost efficient way.

2. Recycling textile-to-textile polyester

We are pioneers in recycling polyester textiles. As of now, most recycled polyester you wear comes from plastic bottles, but with the Green Machine, the focus is on textile-to-textile polyester recycling. “It’s a giant leap forward for the fashion industry,” says Erik.

3. Reusing resources

The system is closed loop, meaning the water, heat and the green chemical are recovered and reused. “It is developed with full intent not to create another problem but to provide a solution in its true meaning,” says Erik.

4. Democratizing sustainability

The Green Machine isn’t degrading the polyester as with chemical recycling, which means it stays price competitive to virgin polyester. It’s also a modular system, which means it can easily be adopted by users of all shapes, sizes and locations. This design will help address many pain points of scaling and make the solution available to more.

5. Giving it away

The Green Machine will be licensed at a cost price (meaning no profit) by HKRITA to anyone. We think this is the best way to maximise fast and meaningful impact, and to accelerate the transformation needed in the industry.

Not a one-man show

To make real impact, we need the Green Machine but also a whole set of other recycling technologies. It’s not a one-man show, the whole industry most contribute and collaborate to change this weak link in the system.

Andy at Kahatex says: “I believe suppliers need to make a conscious effort and focus on more sustainable approaches, even if it is not the most economically effective, for example having a slower return on investment.”

A year of learning and tweaking

The first Green Machine we are building with Kahatex is a trial system. We still have a lot to learn and improve when we are now integrating the system with an existing and highly optimised factory. Based on these learnings, we will improve the design and offer an even better system to the industry.

Andy has an optimistic outlook on the future: “I hope that the hydrothermal system can be scaled up and become a widely accepted approach to a more sustainable fashion industry.”

We hope so too. What we do know for sure is that the solutions are out there, now we need the fashion industry to commit.