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Renewcell’s Commercial-Scale Factory: Dawn of a New Era?

Coming up on its 10-year anniversary, Renewcell shows no signs of slowing down.

As world leaders gathered in Egypt to discuss how to decarbonize supply chains in time to stabilize the climate, the world’s first commercial-scale textile-to-textile pulp mill held its official opening in Sundsvall, Sweden Thursday.

Renewcell 1” is the first of a new generation of climate-friendly mills that shift viscose production from being a linear extractive supply chain—with a significant impact on the world’s forests, biodiversity and climate—to low-impact, circular production. The first-of-its-kind facility will repurpose more than 120,000 metric tons of textile waste next year, otherwise destined for landfills, and turn it into new viscose for fashion. 

“We’re delighted to be the first mill in the world that is dedicated to circular manufacturing for the viscose fashion sector,” said Patrik Lundström, CEO of Renewcell. “It hasn’t always been easy, but the commissioning of this facility marks the dawn of a new circular era for global fashion.”

As the global effort to combat climate change and environmental degradation accelerate, there’s a growing need to make fashion circular and preserve critical forest ecosystems. Over 200 million trees are cut down annually to make fabrics like viscose and rayon. Renewcell’s new mill uses textile waste rather than trees to produce these fabrics, sourcing from worn-out jeans and production scraps.

Here’s how it works: Through a patented process, Renewcell takes garments that can’t be resold, strips them of their buttons, zippers and other trims, removes any dye and then smashes the remains into a pulp picked clean of contaminants, such as polyester, so only cellulose remains. This slurry is then dried into sheets of pure Circulose, packaged into bales and shipped for processing into textiles. Any clothing made from Circulose can be recycled several more times in the same way. The entire process is a closed-loop operation, meaning the chemicals and water used are reclaimed and reused throughout the factory. Its chemists adapted a cellulose fiber production process to use recycled cotton as feedstock instead of wood. The company’s polymer recycling process makes it possible to sustainably manufacture fabric that competes with non-recycled materials in the market.

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Strong market demand has played a vital role in Renewcell coming to market at scale. H&M first took a minority stake in the company in 2017 and has since become Renewcell’s second-largest shareholder, with an 11.51 percent share as of 2021. Earlier this year, Levi’s launched a version of its most iconic product, the 501 jeans, made with Circulose as a part of its ongoing partnership with Renewcell.

Through Canopy’s work in the fashion sector, more than 500 fashion brands, designers, and retailers are committed to prioritizing the use of next generation solutions, including viscose made from old textiles and agricultural residues and not sourced from ancient and endangered forests. Clear market signals of support and offtake agreements from brands and conventional viscose producers helped Renewcell unlock its financing for this first commercial-scale facility.

“As we strive to turn around the climate and biodiversity crises, we need dozens of these low-impact mills to replace unsustainable forest-based viscose production,” said Nicole Rycroft, executive director of Canopy. “Renewcell, their investors and off-takers have stepped up to make this first Next Gen mill a reality. We’re excited to continue to work with the marketplace and financiers to transform this supply chain at a pace and scale that’s proportional to the ecological requirements of our time.”

It is estimated that over 90 million tons of apparel waste accumulate in landfills each year—the equivalent in weight to 18 Great Pyramids. Using recycled waste textiles to make viscose rather than forest fiber saves up to 15 tons of CO2e per ton of product.

Renewcell recently hired Lenzing’s 20-plus year director of global business and development, Tricia Carey, as chief commercial officer, a move potentially signifying that what it can offer might be a bit more advanced than what other sustainable fiber makers are capable of. But startups are quickly following suit.

Finland’s Spinnova made the list of Time’s Best Inventions of 2022 in the style category. Created from renewable raw materials, Spinnova fiber is made with zero harmful chemicals. Its production consumes 99 percent less water and causes 72 percent fewer CO2 emissions than traditional cotton. Essentially, Spinnova, too, wants to replace virgin fibers with those derived from a circular process.   

“We believe that the key to changing the world lies in sustained innovation and we are honored to be recognized for our efforts to transform the raw material base of the global textile industry for the better,” said Kim Poulsen, Spinnova CEO.  

And earlier this year textile innovations company Evrnu launched a high-performance, recyclable lyocell material completely made from cotton textile waste.