The world’s first commercial-scale textile recycling mill marks an important step towards addressing fashion’s massive waste problem.

On the Swedish coast of the Baltic Sea, in the city of Sundsvall – home to the country’s pulp and paper industry – a team of scientists, chemists, entrepreneurs and textile manufacturers are celebrating a milestone birthday, under a banner which features the slogan “#SolutionsAreSexy”.

After ten years of development, the Swedish pulp producer Renewcell has just opened the world’s first commercial-scale textile-to-textile chemical recycling pulp mill.

While mechanical textiles-to-textiles recycling has been practised for centuries, Renewcell is the first commercial mill to use chemical recycling, allowing it to improve quality and scale production. With a goal of recycling the equivalent of over 1.4 billion T-shirts per year by 2030, the new plant marks the beginning of a significant shift in the fashion industry’s ability to recycle used clothing at scale.

“The linear model of fashion consumption is not sustainable,” Renewcell CEO Patrik Lundström says. “We cannot deplete the Earth’s natural resources by pumping oil to make polyester, felling trees to make viscose, or growing cotton, and then using these fibres only once in a linear value chain that ends in oceans, landfills, or incinerators. Fashion must become circular.” This includes reducing fashion waste and pollution while also extending the life of garments through collection schemes and technologies that convert textiles into new raw materials.

According to some estimates, more than 100 billion items of clothing are produced globally each year, with 65% of these ending up in landfill within 12 months. Landfills emit an equal amount of carbon dioxide and methane, with the latter being 28 times more potent than the former over a 100-year period. According to the UN, the fashion industry is responsible for 8-10% of global carbon emissions.

Only 1% of recycled clothing is remade into new clothing. While charity shops, textile banks, and retailer “take-back” programmes help to keep donated clothes in circulation, the ability to recycle clothes at the end of their useful life is currently limited. Many high-street retailers, including Levi Strauss and H&M, have take-back programmes. Use a three-pronged approach: resell (for example, to charity shops), re-use (convert into other products such as cleaning cloths or mops), and recycle (into carpet underlay, insulation material or mattress filling – clothing is not listed as an option).

Much of the technical difficulty in recycling old clothes into new clothes stems from their composition. According to the global non-profit Textile Exchange, the majority of our clothes are made from a blend of textiles, with polyester being the most widely produced fibre, accounting for 54% of total global fibre production. Cotton comes in second, with a market share of about 22%. The low cost of fossil-based synthetic fibres makes polyester a popular choice for fast fashion brands that prioritise price above all else – polyester costs half as much per kg as cotton. While the plastics industry has been able to degrade pure polyester (PET) for decades, the blended nature of textiles has made this process difficult. without diminishing the other. (Learn more about why clothes are so difficult to recycle.)

The Renewcell mill produces Circulose biodegradable cellulose pulp by using 100% textile waste as its feedstock, primarily old T-shirts and jeans. The textiles are shredded first, then buttons, zips, and colour are removed. They are then mechanically and chemically processed to gently separate the tightly tangled cotton fibres from each other. What is left is pure cellulose.

After drying, the pulp sheet feels like thick paper. This can then be dissolved and spun into new viscose fabric by viscose manufacturers. Renewcell claims to use 100% renewable energy generated by hydropower from the nearby Indalsälven river.

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Viscose is the most common man-made cellulosic fibre (MMCF) because of its lightweight, silk-like quality. MMCFs account for approximately 6% of total fibre production. According to Textile Exchange, the textile industry uses dissolved pulp cellulose to produce approximately 7.2 million tonnes of cellulosic fabrics each year. According to Canopy, a US non-profit whose mission is to protect forests from being cut down to make packaging and textiles such as viscose and rayon, the majority comes from wood pulp, with more than 200 million trees logged each year. Renewcell’s technology not only helps to preserve forests, but it also increases pulp yield. ” A tree is made up of various components, including cellulose. “However, about 60% of it is non-cellulose content that can’t be used,” says Renewcell strategy director Harald Cavalli-Björkman. “With the exception of a minor loss, all of the waste cotton we use is converted into pulp.”

The mill has a 40,000-tonne-per-year contract with Chinese viscose manufacturer Tangshan Sanyou Chemical Industries and is in talks with other large viscose manufacturers, including Birla in India and Kelheim Fibres in Germany. H&M, a Swedish fashion company that produces three billion garments per year and was an early investor in Renewcell, has signed a five-year, 10,000-tonne deal with the pulp mill, which is the equivalent of 50 million T-shirts. Zara also partnered with Renewcell on a capsule collection in 2022.

“We want to build more mills,” Cavalli-Björkman says, adding that Renewcell hopes to recycle 600 million T-shirts in a year, which equates to 120,000 tonnes of textile waste and more than doubling its current capacity. “However, this is still very small in comparison to the global market for textile fibres. We intend to reach a capacity of 360,000 tonnes by 2030.”

However, Renewcell’s technology has limitations: it can only recycle cotton clothes, with a maximum non-cotton content of 5%. “Partly because it’s difficult to separate polyester, and too much of it affects product quality, but also because we want to ensure we have a decent yield coming out the other end,” Cavalli-Björkman explains. “With the exception of items that require exceptional durability, such as workwear, or specific properties, such as waterproof clothing, the only reason for using polyester is because it is inexpensive – at a high environmental cost. We’d like to reverse that trend, bringing clean materials and fewer blends into the circular economy.”

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