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Prospect of chemical recycling of cellulosics

As the textile industry leaders are increasingly getting sustainably conscious to reduce its pollution, earlier this month the new The Full Circle Textiles Project was launched by Fashion for Good to confront some of the challenges by scaling innovations in closed loop cellulosic recycling in the industry.

But participants explained there are a number of important barriers to overcome first. Man-made cellulosic fibres (MMCF) such as viscose/rayon, lyocell, modal and cupro are most frequently derived from wood pulp and have the third largest share in global fibre production after cotton and polyester. According to Fashion for Good, MMCF are increasing growing in the industry, with production doubling over the last three decades and expected to grow continually.

Prospect-textile-chemical-recycling-cellulosics
Figure: The Full Circle Textiles Project was launched by Fashion for Good to confront some of the challenges by scaling innovations in closed loop cellulosic recycling in the industry.

“At the moment, we extract virgin resources for production and dispose of textiles after use, thus generating a huge amount of waste,” Kathleen Rademan, Director of Fashion for Good’s Innovation Platform, said on a recent webinar.

“The fashion industry needs a systems-wide change towards circularity, with scalable, high-quality textile recycling technologies,” Rademan added.

‘The Full Circle Textiles Project: Scaling Innovations In Cellulosic Recycling’ is to authenticate and finally find sustainable solutions for chemical recycling of cellulosics, with the goal of attaining a closed loop system that changes textile waste from cotton and cotton-blend materials to produce new MMCF which can, in turn, will be spun into yarn to create new apparel.

Leading organizations like, Laudes Foundation, Birla Cellulose, Kering, PVH Corp and Target join Fashion for Good in examining technologies from innovators Evrnu, Infinited Fiber Company, Phoenxt, Renewcell and Tyton BioSciences.

In the textile industry, the traditional mechanical recycling process is mainly the ‘downcycling’ industry – producing materials used in insulation, industrial clothes or other lower-value uses – Fashion for Good states in a background report published to accompany the project launch.

Characteristically done on high-purity, long staple fibres such as wool and cashmere, it involves breaking down garments by cutting them into shredded fragments, pulling apart the fibres and then separating and positioning them using a carding process.

Disadvantages comprise the high-purity feedstock requirement and the shortening of fibres during recycling which can reduce performance at the yarn and fabric stage.

Then textile waste is broken down into cellulosic pulp, then reconstructed into new fibres of indistinguishable, or even greater quality and finally produce brand new garments.

new technologies are also able to address blended-fibre garments. Experts believe that this technology has great potential to close the loop on textile waste, there are a number of barriers to scale, including a lack of financing investment, a relatively small-scale output, and limited current off-take by brands and manufacturers.

“It’s like being at an awkward teenage dance, where the volume and the price point aren’t where your brands are used to it being,” explains Nicole Rycroft, Founder and Executive Director of environmental not-for-profit Canopy, which works to defend the world’s forests in the viscose supply chain.

Rycroft speaking on the webinar adds that while producers are trialing chemical recycling, it’s still a new technology.

Rycroft told, “Everybody’s kind of still standing around the edge of the room a little bit, wistfully looking at each other. This is the part that everybody needs to come ready to dance to really help accelerate this space.”

The case for chemical Despite the hurdles, project partners believe the potential benefits are worth the slog.

“As with a lot of innovations that we see in the apparel space, it’s not an easy solution,” acknowledges fellow panellist Christine Goulay, Head of Sustainable Innovation at French luxury goods group Kering.

“You often have to get a lot of different stakeholders or people together, so there are pieces of the puzzle that all need to join up,” said Goulay.

“The fashion industry needs a systems-wide change towards circularity, with scalable, high-quality textile recycling technologies.”

Kathleen Rademan, Director of Fashion for Good’s Innovation Platform.

This is a technology that needs a lot of R&D and development. There are certainly some challenges there, which is why this project is so serious in really moving things onward more rapidly.

“But the timing is right. There are numerous brand commitments out there about going circular and not sourcing virgin materials…we can’t do business as usual through this linear supply chain. People are ready; they realize it’s a priority, the innovation, the technology is getting to a stage where it’s coming on to the market. It’s really happening now,” Goulay added.

Also present was Samantha Sims, Vice President of Environment, Sustainability, and Product Stewardship at apparel giant PVH Corp, which launched a new corporate responsibility strategy last year to accelerate its sustainability efforts.

“Chemical recycling, we deem as one that is just a non-negotiable. It’s critical that we have it in place” – Samantha Sims, PVH Corp.

“One of the main targets is around our goal to have three fully circular products on the market by 2025. To really achieve that big hairy, audacious target, there’s a number of technologies and solutions that are critical. Chemical recycling, we deem as one that is just a non-negotiable. It’s critical that we have it in place,” Samantha concluded.

Meanwhile, Rycroft expressed the panelists: “There’s nothing but opportunities in this space that lies ahead,” noting Canopy research shows an “absolute abundance of raw material.”

“With even just using 25% of cotton waste that’s available, you hit all of the raw material needs of current man-made cellulosic annual production,” Rycroft added.

That would be more than adequate to be the raw material to manufacture the 6.5m tones of man-made cellulosics that are currently being produced.

Katrin Ley, Managing Director of Fashion for Good said, “The companies that join the party now can capitalise on those innovations, and on sustainability. They can really lead the transformation and be the winners eventually.”

“We know that we can entice investors to join the game and engage in opportunities if we can ensure there are attractive returns, make sure that risk is manageable, and also ensure that the impact is measurable. If parties, brands, supply chain actors, innovators, and investors really come together, we can create those conditions to ensure just that,” Rycroft adds now is a “perfect time” for more conventional and traditional investors to be looking at this space.

“When we first launched CanopyStyle, there was this almost unicorn on the horizon. There was an interest in circular economy and alternative fibres as a feedstock, but it wasn’t seen as viable by brand partners or by the viscose producers that we were having conversations with.”

“Fast-forward seven years, we now have three of the top five viscose producers on the market with man-made cellulosic fibres products that contain between 20-50% recycled textile as the feedstock. That’s quite a remarkable shift for a relatively condensed period of time,” Rycroft told.

In the years to come, industry can expect to see an uptake in what are currently deemed “disruptive solutions,” combined with the emergence of new collection systems, the executives say.

“We’re anticipating that by 2030, 50% of man-made cellulosic volumes that are out on the market will be from these next generation feedstocks and that currently disruptive technologies will be mainstream,” Rycroft states.

Ley adds: “That scale-up will lead to prices coming down, reaching more virgin equivalency. We will also see new collection systems emerging. We need textile waste to be collected and brought to the right destinations to truly close the loop.”

Gaur explains it is important to focus on scaling sorting and collection as “textile is a very complex mix of various things.”

He notes the difficulties of sorting the different components of a single garment for recycling, giving the example of a pure cotton shirt that may have a button or a shirt made with a cotton blend. “The crux of the solution is how well you sort, segregate, and select.”

Meanwhile, for Rycroft, the back-end infrastructure of this new supply chain presents a new opportunity in terms of business, revenue, and value-add for many communities and existing businesses.

“There’s a tendency for us to focus on that kind of back-end supply chain and building that out, the collection and sorting and all the aspects related to textiles. But there’s also a parallel movement around paper and packaging with the use of agricultural residue, some of which are also suitable for man-made cellulosics. That back-end supply chain is currently starting to be developed for packaging and paper; there is an ability for there to be a synergistic leveraging of other commodities also moving in this direction.”

Goulay agrees. “We have to look beyond fashion and beyond apparel. How can we bridge to packaging and to fast-moving consumer goods companies, and tap in and learn from what they’re doing, if they’re two steps ahead in a very similar process? The orchestration maybe doesn’t just stop here, but also goes and sees how we can bridge and find those win-wins, and dovetailed opportunities with other sectors.”

For brands and supply chain partners looking to get involved, Goulay notes “it’s always good to start with the data.”

She advises firms should do their data mapping and comparison and look to resources like Fashion for Good, Canopy and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for guidance. For Sims, a shift in mindset is key.

“Apparel is not naturally an innovative space. We don’t have big R&D infrastructures so there’s this mindset around jumping in and trying things. Getting in the water, testing these technologies until you start to get your hands on them, learn what will work as it relates to product development; [that] just can’t be underscored enough.”

“We look at consumer demand for more customisable and quicker access to product, and nearshoring trends. We see how this chemical recycling market can grow and evolve. It’ll be really important and interesting to look at the kind of tensions and the common areas in terms of where chemical recycling needs to be available. Along with collecting all of the post-consumer goods and being able to get that to consumers quickly.”

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