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Australian Scientists Are Dyeing New Denim From Old Jeans

H&M has made no secret of its aim to turn old clothes into brand new ones, but an innovative idea could help the Swedish retailer take circularity to a whole new level.

A group of scientists from Deakin University’s Institute for Frontier Materials (IFM) in Australia was recently named a winner of the H&M Foundation’s Global Change Award for prototyping a process to use old jeans to color new denim.

The team won a 150,000 euro grant (about $160,000) as well as access to a one-year innovation accelerator, in collaboration with Accenture and KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, to help develop the idea on an industrial scale.

“We have been working in the area of fiber powdering for over a decade,” Professor Xungai Wang, who led the research, told Rivet. “We are also fully aware of the environmental issues associated with the traditional denim manufacturing process and have been looking at different ways of recycling used textiles, including denim, in recent years.”

Australian Scientists Are Dyeing New Denim From Old Jeans

Denim has a massive environmental footprint compared to most other textiles, requiring large amounts of water and energy during traditional dyeing processes and producing considerable amounts of effluent that can contaminate waterways. According to Wang, the average pair of denim jeans uses 200 liters (or 53 gallons) of water in the coloration process alone.

Deakin’s circular approach, which pulverises used denim into ultrafine particles to be printed onto new undyed fabric, reduces both the water and energy used in production and reduces waste. Not to mention, the old denim is recycled instead of ending up in a landfill and production costs are lower, which could mean cheaper prices for consumers.

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The process is not without its challenges: currently, only cotton denim can be used (so stretchy skinnies are a no-go) and the team has yet to convert old jeans into small particles on a large scale.

To that end, Wang said the grant provided by the H&M Foundation will primarily be used for equipment and staff costs to help the team reach its goal of making new denim gaments using the technology within 12 months. “Consumers may be able to buy them within three years if there is timely investment in scaling up,” he added.

Denim-dyed denim isn’t the only idea H&M has invested in. The other grant recipients included: “manure couture,” which aims to convert cellulose from cow manure into a biodegradeable textile; solar textiles that trap carbon from the environment; RFID-enabled threads that let consumers know what they’re wearing; and grape leather, which uses leftovers from winemaking to create vegetal leather.