In the Re:newcell factory
The fashion industry generates more greenhouse gases than international aviation and shipping combined. If that wasn’t bad enough, less than 1% of textile clothing is recycled.
But one fashion entrepreneur has patented a process to turn old clothes into pulp, which in turn can be made into new garments.
Patrik Lundstrom, a 52-year-old from Sweden, is CEO of Re:newcell, which was launched in 2012.
He recalls: “It was founded at Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology by a group who all landed at the same question: is there a way to save the cotton that people have spent so much effort growing, from landfills or fires and put it back into people’s closets?”
“The researchers among our founders had dedicated their careers to making pulp and cellulose processes more efficient and sustainable,” Lundstrom continues. “The founding group also included an entrepreneur that had turned an ailing Swedish pulp mill into a world leading biorefinery, and a recycling expert that had been repeatedly asked by brands if there was a way to replace expensive new cotton with a sustainable material.
“Together, they could see the demand, had a vision for the technology needed, and the capacity to turn their concept into a profitable business.”
And so Re:newcell was launched. The company’s process turns cotton and viscose into a biodegradable dissolving pulp product called Circulose, which can then be used to produce new clothes.
Dissolving pulp is usually made from wood and is the raw material used to make all viscose, lyocell, acetate and other cellulosic fibers. Re:newcell makes the same pulp – but just from textiles such as used jeans or clippings from factories.
Re:newcell CEO Patrik Lundstrom
The company’s first industrial-scale plant opened its doors last year and already has more than 50 brands lined up to make clothes from the pulp.
“This is pretty much an untapped industry,” Lundstrom says of the competition.. “It’s depressing. Large scale fashion recycling hasn’t been feasible due to lack of technology.
“What has existed is mechanical recycling that degrades textile quality too much to appeal to broad consumer groups and work at industrial scales.”
Around 90 million tons of textiles are dumped into landfills, incinerators and oceans around the world every year. Many major companies, such as H&M and Kering have pledged to use 100% sustainable materials by the next decade, but Lundstrom says there is still “a long way to go”.
In the Re:newcell factory
“In 2014, we were the first in the world in the world to create a full garment, a bright yellow dress, from 100% recycled used blue denim jeans through our patented chemical process.
“But, that was in the lab. Fast forward to today, and we’re now the only company in the world able to upcycle fashion at an industrial scale, making Circulose at our plant in Sweden.”
The plant can produce 7,000 tons of biodegradable pulp every year, which is the equivalent by weight to about 30 million t-shirts.
“We’re not the only ones in the space working on ways to upcycle clothes. For example, there’s the Infinited Fiber Company and Worn Again Technologies.
“But, as far as we know, we are the only ones able to upcycle used cotton clothes at scale, which is what is needed in the fashion industry to make a real impact.”
Lundstrom acknowledges the challenges of recycling clothes, namely making a consistent product from a very inconsistent raw material.
“For example, separating plastic from cotton is very difficult as even 100% cotton clothing contains some plastic so it’s taken time to master this process.
“And, extending the lifespan of clothes isn’t easy. Many of the clothes we wear today, will only last as few as 10 wash cycles – they’re dyed with colors that are very difficult to remove in upcycling, particularly if you want to do it in an environmentally friendly way.”
In the future, Lundstrom hopes to open more industrial-scale plats to keep up with demand, and says the company is “actively working” to “finance and build further plants in different locations throughout Europe and beyond”.