Thanks largely to the fast-fashion model employed by brands worldwide, 80 billion items of clothing are produced globally each year.
A whopping 20,000 litres of water are needed to make one kg of cotton which is only enough to make a t-shirt and a pair of jeans. These startling figures (and others) have led to the fashion industry to become the 2nd or 3rd most polluting industry in the world — depending on who you talk to.
The sheer volume of clothing being produced shows the massive opportunity for recycling, but until recently there has not been a system that successfully recycles clothing en masse.
Hope comes in the form of Re:newcell, a Swedish company that has found a way to dissolve natural fabric fibres into a new biodegradable raw material — Re:newcell pulp.
It can be turned into textile fibre, fed into the textile production cycle and can meet industry specifications.
“This is the link that has been missing from the cycle, as the way fashion is produced and consumed can finally be transformed into a never-ending loop,” says the European Union Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform.
Re:newcell takes in garments that can’t be resold to people — “whether they’re way too worn-out or hopelessly out of style.” They mainly take in cotton clothes because they contain a lot of cellulose.
The clothes are shredded, de-buttoned, de-zipped, de-colored and turned into a slurry. Contaminants like plastic polyester are taken out. What remains is cellulose – the biodegradable organic polymer that cotton, trees and all green plants on earth are made out of.
The slurry is dried to produce sheets of pure Circulose — the brand name for Re:newcell’s 100 percent recycled material that the company launched last month at Global Fashion event Première Vision in Paris.
The sheets are then packaged into bales and shipped to be made back into natural textile fibres.
And, the loop is closed — no cotton fields, no oil, and no trees.
Clothes made from Circulose can be recycled several more times. The sheets of fabric are made in Re:newcell’s 100 percent renewable energy demo plant in Kristinehamn, Sweden.
Mattias Jonsson, Re:newcell’s CEO, says that the company can produce 7000 tonnes annually of the biodegradable pulp Circulose is made from — equal to the weight of 30 million t-shirts.
“We are the first company to be doing this on an industrial scale,” the CEO told the BBC.
“We are not just producing kilo’s we are producing tonnes, and that’s very important for the industry to understand that this can be done on a real scale and make a real difference.”
H&M took a minority stake in Re:newcell in October 2018, so it comes as no surprise that the Swedish fashion house is incorporating Circulose fabric into their lines. Additionally, Renewcell raised $5 million in an oversubscribed investment round in June this year, adding new owners, including the Swedish fashion brand KappAhl.
Circulose garments will be available to buy in stores in collaboration with selected brands in the beginning of next year.
“The fashion scene is always changing but the industry itself never really has. It has always been about growing more cotton, pumping more oil or harvesting more trees in order to sell more of the must-have pieces of the season. Meanwhile, less than 1 % of clothes are recycled. It’s crazy. Circulose was created with the ambition to shift the entire industry to circularity and to dramatically lower the impact fashion has on the environment,” says Harald Cavalli-Björkman, Head of Brand for Circulose.
Cavalli-Björkman assures that Circulose fabric is high-quality, affordable and most importantly, circular.
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