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H&M Goes All in on Garment-Chomping ‘Green Machine’ Amid Chorus of Recycling Critics

H&M Group’s nonprofit arm and the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) want to ramp up their game-changing textile recycling technology in Cambodia. The North Face and Timberland owner VF Corp. is coming along for the ride.

There’s little time to waste, said Erik Bang, innovation lead at H&M Foundation. Despite growing discourse about sustainable fashion in the age of climate change, less than 1 percent of clothes produced today is recycled into new ones, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Most are downcycled into low-value materials such as insulation, rags or upholstery stuffing.

Billed as the world’s first innovation to tackle difficult-to-separate polyester-cotton garments at scale, the Green Machine is the culmination of a four-year, 5.8-million-euro ($6.4 million) collaboration between H&M Foundation and HKRITA that began in 2016. They renewed their partnership in 2020, with a 100 million-Swedish kronor ($11 million) buy-in from the H&M Foundation and additional funding from the Hong Kong Government’s Innovation & Technology Fund. The Green Machine was designed to pick up the pace of textile-to-textile recycling and help the industry bridge its massive circularity gap, but progress has been slow-going because of disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It’s been a huge frustration for us,” Bang said. “We’ve been feeling the pain that everyone has felt.”

Still, they’re getting there, albeit on a delayed schedule. If the feasibility study the companies have commissioned for next spring proceeds according to plan, the Green Machine order in Cambodia will be the third industrial system to extend from the modest lab-based set up in Hong Kong. In fact, 2020 saw the establishment of the first industrial plant with PT Kahatex, ​​a large integrated textile company in Indonesia, despite obstacles getting the myriad parts, not to mention the right technicians and engineers to put them together, to their destination. In August, Turkish denim supplier Isko invested in a system of its own.

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None of these operations will be exclusive to H&M Group, which has been a longstanding point of the collaboration between H&M Foundation and HKRITA. “The entire purpose of the partnership is to drive transformation for the entire industry,” Bang said. Neither are the organizations making money off the intellectual property: they’ll license the blueprints at cost price to whomever wants it.

Beyond ‘trials and capsules and tests and pilots’

The Green Machine employs hydrothermal power, water and less than 5 percent of a “biodegradable green chemical,” which Bang said is basically lemon juice, to dissolve the cotton component of blended materials and extract the polyester for spinning into fresh yarn. There are three “tracks” for the remaining liquified cotton, which is dried to create a cellulose powder, he said. One is regenerating it into viscose fibers that can be made into new garments, which H&M Foundation and HKRITA have been trialing with ​​Daiwabo Rayo, a Japanese fiber producer, with some success. Another route is to “functionalize” the powder by applying it to other textiles and imbuing them with a super-absorbent and super-soft hand.

The third involves plowing the sponge-like powder directly into the soil to improve its water retention for agriculture. In a test conducted last December with Shahi Exports, one of India’s biggest apparel manufacturers, cotton farmers discovered that using the amendment led to a 20 percent uptick in yields. “If the soil stays moist over a longer period of time, you don’t have to rely on as much irrigation,” Bang said. “And if the plant is healthier, it produces more but it also produces a high quality [of fiber].” The results of a larger second-season trial are still pending.

H&M Green Machine
The Green Machine employs hydrothermal power, water and less than 5 percent of a “biodegradable green chemical,” which is basically lemon juice, to dissolve the cotton component of blended materials and extract the polyester.

Bang said the involvement of VF Corp., as part of an international consortium initiated by German development agency GIZ, validates the Green Machine’s relevance to the industry. “The technology itself won’t solve anything unless brands in the industry start to recycle,” he said. “This industry has been really good at doing trials and capsules and tests and pilots and all of that; it needs to be as comfortable scaling up these solutions, not only recycling, not only the Green Machine, but also more sustainable materials and new business models, at the same time as we start cutting back on those practices that we know are no longer feasible in the long run.”

VF enters the chat

It’s a sentiment VF Corp. is very much on board with, said Jon Hopper, director of global material supply at VF Asia-Pacific. “The challenge is so large that not one single company is going to be able to solve it,” he said. “We really need to cooperate with stakeholders throughout the entirety of the supply chain.” Cracking the code will help it achieve its sustainability targets faster as well. The extraction and production of materials account for nearly half of the company’s Scope 3 emissions, which it has pledged to reduce by 30 percent from a 2017 baseline by 2030.

As part of the feasibility study, the Supreme and Vans owner will be connecting half a dozen of its yarn-producing suppliers with Chip Mong Insee, a concrete manufacturer that will be running the Green Machine in Cambodia and therefore serve as the de facto recycling partner.

“So we will then go to a stage of understanding the quality and variation of the output, who it is a suitable raw material for and where the opportunities are for us,” Hopper said, adding that the “closest analogy” for describing Green Machine’s output is the equivalent of used plastic bottles. What comes out will need to be further chopped, ground and otherwise processed, much like with PET flake or chip, and then extruded to create textured or filament yarns. Some tweaks aside, Hopper expects Green Machine’s polyester to more or less plug into existing systems.

VF Corp. has committed to absorbing one year’s supply of the output from the Cambodian plant, which works out to roughly 300 tons of polyester. The feasibility study, Hopper said, will help the company not only evaluate the viability of the chemical processing but also the “commercial point of view in scale.” “If the product is cost effective against regular recycled polyester, and the technology and the processing works, then there should be no issue for us to continue to take the product,” he said. Green Machine’s polyester, Bang added, is “marginally” more expensive than its virgin counterpart today, but the goal is for there to be no price premium for the product.

The inaugural Green Machine harvest will likely go to The North Face, since the outerwear company is “by far and away” VF Corp.’s largest user of polyester, Hopper said. By 2025, the brand has promised to source half of its nylon and polyester from recycled materials. “But we believe there will be opportunities across the whole of the brand portfolio,” he added.

None of this will happen immediately, of course. The earliest a facility in Cambodia can be commissioned will be the end of 2022, though VF Corp. expects to start experimenting with some of the output from both the Hong Kong machine and the Indonesian plant, the latter of which will fire up in early 2022 with an initial daily capacity of 1.5 tons of textile inputs.

“It’s quite modular,” Hopper said of the Green Machine. “And it’s relatively low capital compared with some [other] chemical recycling plants.”

Monki Green Machine
Last December, Monki, H&M’s Gen Z women’s wear label, debuted the first commercial products made using feedstock gleaned from the Green Machine.

H&M already has its own commercial proof concept. Last December, Monki, its Gen Z women’s wear label, debuted the first commercial products made using feedstock gleaned from the Green Machine—a cropped mélange-gray hooded sweatshirt, branded across the chest with the words “Respect your Mother (Nature)” in black embroidery, and a matching wide-legged sweatpant—which it mixed with organic cotton for a jersey-like hand. Because of the limited quantities of reclaimed material available, however, Monki only made 120 pieces of each style. Bang expects the site in Indonesia to give H&M much more to work with.

Recycling: panacea or problematic?

Environmental advocates have mixed feelings about the Green Machine—and about textile recycling in general—because they say it provides fashion brands an excuse to keep pumping out clothing at rates that are untenable both for workers and the planet. Polyester, whether recycled or not, still generates microplastics, resulting in marine pollution. And though the Green Machine solves the circular “dead end” that “downcycling” plastic bottles currently poses, unless there’s a systemic shift, the number of garments produced using the technology will still pale in comparison to those derived from virgin petrochemicals.

“Initially, I want to celebrate every bit of progress, but we also have to zero in on outcomes that are not the sexiest but that move the needle the most: How can we reduce the most greenhouse gases? How can we better understand the plastics crisis?” said Maxine Bédat, director of New Standard Institute, a sustainable fashion think tank, and author of “Unraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment.” According to a report published by the Apparel Impact Institute and the World Resources Institute in November, the biggest levers for knocking out greenhouse-gas emissions are eliminating coal and shifting to 100 percent renewable energy in manufacturing, though maximizing material efficiency can also help.

Still, a focus on recycling is problematic because it allows brands—fast-fashion ones like H&M, in particular—to “create something that continues to advance this disposable business model,” Bédat said. “There’s no demonstration that you can have a disposable business model with all the technology that you want and still exist within the bounds of the planet.”

Bang said many of these concerns are valid and recycling should “never be an excuse to continue overproduction, not care about the environment and not change consumer behavior.” Eventually, the industry also needs to move away from hydrocarbons. But it would also be a “huge mistake,” he said, not to utilize recycling as part of a quiver of solutions.

“The urgency of the climate crisis and the state of the industry [do] not allow us to pick and choose. We need all solutions to be adopted and scaled ASAP while we also address the scale of consumption itself,” he said. “At the end of the day, regardless of how much or little we consume, we still have to recover our resources instead of wasting them.”

Rachel Kibbe, founder and CEO of Circular Services Group, and a textiles waste expert said that since fashion isn’t going away, all circular models are a necessary part of the equation. The real battle isn’t questioning whether companies are greenwashing by participating in recycling but rather ensuring that every retailer is participating in recycling in “all its forms,” “from advanced recycling to resale to upcycling to repair.”

“Large retailers, for better or worse, are positioned to invest in scalable research, pilots and infrastructure that will help usher in price parity with virgin and linear supply chains more quickly,” Kibbe said. “It’s going to take a village to ‘fix’ a broken system, even if that includes the players who most contribute to that system’s problems. After all, they can have the most outsized impact, both good and bad.”