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Breakthrough for H&M Foundation recycling project

A project involving the H&M Foundation has had a technological breakthrough, finding a method to recycle blended textiles into new fabrics and yarns.

Using a hydrothermal (chemical) process, there is no loss of quality for materials.

For the four-year innovative Closed-Loop Apparel Recycling Eco-System Program, the clothing brand’s non-profit arm working with The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA). It says the technology will be scaled up and made available to the global fashion industry, and describes the finding as a major breakthrough in the journey toward a closed loop for textiles.

Study fibre extract from blended textile (hydrothermal) (1)

“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,” says H&M Foundation program manager Erik Bang.

Lab 1 - Hydrothermal Treatment (2)

“It is the customers’ collecting of old garments that has enabled this important research lead by the institute.”

The aim of the partnership is to find at least one ready technology to recycle clothes made from blend textiles within the four years. One year into the partnership, HKRITA – together with Ehime University and Shinshu University in Japan – developed the hydrothermal process to fully separate and recycle cotton and polyester blends. The recovered polyester material can be reused directly, without any quality loss.

Lab 1 - Hydrothermal Treatment (6)

The process uses only heat, water and less than 5 per cent biodegradable green chemical to self-separate cotton and polyester blends. The fibre-to-fibre recycling method is cost effective with no secondary environmental pollution.

Lab 1 - Hydrothermal Treatment (3)

“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,” says HKRITA CEO Edwin Keh. “This is a major breakthrough in the pursuit of a fashion industry working within the planetary boundaries.”

Initiated in September last year, the partnership is backed by an estimated €5.8 million (US$6.9 million) of funding. The Innovation and Technology Fund of the Hong Kong SAR Government also provides substantial funding and support.

Once the technology has been scaled up and tested further to prove commercial viability, it will be licensed widely to ensure broad market access and maximum impact.

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