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Ground-breaking innovations to recycle textiles

Today it’s not possible to recycle blend textiles on a big scale to make new clothes. To change this, the H&M Foundation partnered with The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel in 2016. Only one year later, a ground-breaking method for separating and recycling blend textiles was discovered, which is now being scaled up to a pilot plant.

€5.8M

estimated donation from the H&M Foundation to The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel during 2016-2020.

2017

the year when HKRITA, together with Ehime University in Japan, successfully developed a process to fully separate and recycle cotton and polyester blends into new fibres.

As we all know, the world’s resources aren’t endless. Far from that. To produce fashion for a growing population, the fashion industry needs to use what’s already available, instead of producing new materials. However, one of the biggest challenges for the fashion industry today is to make new garments out of discarded clothes.

“This breakthrough on separation and recycling of textile blends has the potential to change the whole fashion industry.”

Erik Bang, Innovation Lead at H&M Foundation

Today it’s possible to recycle garments made from only one material, such as wool jumpers or cotton trousers. However, most garments today consist of blend textiles, the most common blend being polyester and cotton. Unfortunately, there’s no commercial viable method available for recycling blend textiles. This needs to change and it must change fast.

To speed up this process, we partnered with The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) in 2016, with a bold goal to find at least one commercial recycling method for polyester and cotton blends within the four year-long project period.

The method must be scalable, sustainable and licensed free to the whole fashion industry.

Ground-breaking technology found

Within only a year after the partnership was initiated, HKRITA, together with Ehime University in Japan, successfully developed a hydrothermal (chemical) process to fully separate and recycle cotton and polyester blends into new fibres.

"By upcycling used textiles into new textiles, we no longer need to rely on virgin materials to dress a growing world population. It’s a breakthrough in the pursuit of a fashion industry operating within the planetary boundaries.”

Edwin Keh, Chief Executive Officer, HKRITA

The process uses only heat, water and less than 5% biodegradable green chemical. This method is cost effective and there’s no secondary pollution to the environment which ensures that the life of the recycled material is prolonged in a sustainable way.

Next, the technology will be scaled up and tested further before being made available to the global fashion industry. When finalised, the technology will be licensed widely to ensure broad market access and maximum impact.

H&M customers part of the success

The funding is made possible thanks to customers handing in unwanted items to H&M’s garment collecting boxes. The surplus generated each year is donated from H&M to H&M Foundation. Half of this donation is used for research on textile recycling, and half is used for projects focusing on equality. The Innovation and Technology Fund of the Hong Kong SAR Government also provides additional and substantial funding and support.

SUMMARY
Focus area: Planet
Project: Ground-breaking innovations to recycle textiles
Country: Hong Kong, Japan
Partner: The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel
Project period: 2016-2020
Estimated donation: 5.8 million Euro
PARTNER
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