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Chemical Recycling is Circular Fashion’s Future. Why Aren’t More Companies Doing It?

Nicole Rycroft, founder and executive director of Canadian forestry nonprofit Canopy, compares current efforts to scale up fashion innovations to “being at an awkward teenage dance.”

“The producers are still trialing it, it’s a new technology, there’s the potential for a bit of a price up for brands and everyone’s kind of standing around at the edge of the room looking a bit wistfully at one another,” she said at a virtual media briefing last week. “And this is a party where everybody needs to come ready to dance to really help accelerate the space.”

The party Rycroft is speaking of is the Full Circle Textiles Project, an initiative spearheaded by Amsterdam sustainability platform Fashion for Good to tackle a “new frontier in chemical recycling,” with the goal of validating and scaling a closed-loop system that transforms cotton-containing textile waste into new man-made cellulosic fibers such as rayon, viscose, lyocell, modal and cupro.

The first-of-its-kind consortium project, which enters its second, more active phase in October, is a strict no-wallflower zone, bringing together investors such as Laudes Foundation, retail bigwigs Kering, PVH Corp. and Target and supply-chain partners like Birla Cellulose, Evrnu, Infinited Fiber Company, Phoenxt, Re:newcell and Tyton BioSciences to surmount the barriers that have held back most chemical-recycling schemes at the pilot stage.

The problem with viscose

Man-made cellulosic fibers, which are by and large derived from virgin wood pulp, are the third-most-commonly used fibers after polyester and cotton, said Kathleen Rademan, innovation platform director at Fashion for Good. The bulk of man-made cellulosic fiber production is “predicated on the linear system” where vital resources are extracted for textile production and then disposed of after use, “thus generating a huge amount of waste,” she said.

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Viscose production, in particular, has doubled in the past 30 years and is expected to balloon even further, posing a growing threat to the world’s dwindling ancient and endangered forests. Already, more than 150 million trees are logged annually to produce viscose and other cellulosic fibers, according to Canopy, imperiling critical species habitat and putting biodiversity on the line.

But next-generation feedstocks, such as those created through chemical recycling, could replace at least 90 percent of viscose production volumes coming from ancient and endangered forests by the end of 2025. By 2030, as much as 50 percent of all viscose could be made from next-generation feedstocks. Indeed, just mining a fraction of the estimated 26 million metric tons of waste cotton and viscose textiles landfilled every year could produce the 6.5 million metric tons of viscose currently generated annually, Rycroft said.

“Even just using 25 percent of cotton waste that’s available, you hit all of the raw material needs of current man-made cellulosic annual production,” she added. “And that doesn’t account for agricultural residues or microbial cellulose as other feedstocks into the space.”

Not all kinds of chemical recycling are equal, of course. Dissolving wood pulp, a key step in the manufacturing of most man-made cellulosic fibers, requires the heavy use of highly corrosive and often hazardous chemicals such as carbon disulphide, caustic soda and sulphuric acid. Without prudent management, these can harm workers, threaten the health of local communities and seep into local ecosystems. Carbon disulphide, which is used as a solvent in viscose and modal production, especially, has been linked to illnesses ranging from organ damage to endocrine disruption.

The “aspiration,” Fashion for Good wrote in an accompanying white paper, is to create an “aligned approach for manufacturing facilities across the world to generate cleaner outputs whilst encouraging more closed-loop processes.” The industry is getting there: Last July, the ZDHC Roadmap to Zero Programme, a collaboration of brands, manufacturers and other supply-chain players, expanded its product scope to include cellulosic production. This past April, it released a set of guidelines for the responsible production of man-made cellulosic fibers, highlighting the importance of chemical recovery during the fiber production stage.

A chicken-and-egg problem

Textile circularity isn’t a pipe dream, experts say. It’s just not living up to its potential. At present, only 1 percent of all clothing is currently recycled into new clothing, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The overwhelming majority—87 percent—of material used for clothing production is landfilled or incinerated after its final use.

Mechanical recycling is by far the more established mode, accounting for some 60 percent of the industry. It also demands a high-purity feedstock, resulting in the backbreaking work of fiber and color sorting and the equally arduous physical removal of trims and hardware. Chopping up fibers shortens their staple length, which can in turn compromise the performance of the resulting yarns and textiles.

While chemical recycling, the alternative, can address these shortcomings, it faces obstacles on the financial and scalability fronts. Investments in the area are largely perceived as risky given its high capital expenditure and long timeframe to commercialization, Rademan said. Another hurdle? The limited uptake by brands and manufacturers, which in turn, deters financiers from taking a leap.

The relationship between the stakeholders is akin to the classic chicken-and-egg conundrum. “Brands will not formally commit to offtake until it is cost competitive with virgin fiber,” Fashion for Good wrote in its report. “However, investors will not finance the innovation to commercialization without the lack of demand signaled from the brands, leaving innovators in a difficult position.”

Dilip Gaur, managing director of the pulp and fiber business at Birla Cellulose, said investors should be less wary of any perceived risks since chemical textile recycling has long moved past proof of concept to viable solution. Since October, the India-based manufacturer has been churning out viscose using a minimum of 20 percent pre-consumer cotton waste. Birla Cellulose is now focused on developing products made from more than 50 percent industrial fabric waste. Post-consumer clothing is next on the cards.

For brands, Gaur said that embracing the technology should be an ethical and financial no-brainer. “If you’re able to recycle 50 percent or 60 percent of your feedstock back, you use that much less pulp, which is the most expensive product,” he said. “And at the end of the day, it’s doing well by doing good, so you are not only helping the planet, you also create a lot of business sense. In my mind, this is a project for the survival of the fashion industry because we can’t keep polluting the way we’ve been polluting.”

Innovation in the time of coronavirus

Chemical recycling, like a lot of innovations in the apparel space, “is not an easy plug-and-play solution,” said Christine Goulay, head of sustainable innovation at Kering. “You often have to get a lot of different stakeholders or people together,” she said. “And so there are pieces of the puzzle that need to join up, from your suppliers to the right operational people, to understanding what you have in your supply chain that you want to recycle, to getting that technology ready. And this is a technology that needs a lot of R&D as we’ve seen.”

By rallying disparate parts of the industry, the Full Circle Textiles Project hopes to surmount all of these challenges. Its timeline, unaltered by the Covid-19 pandemic, sets a target for creating garments made from recycled fibers by next June. After that, the project will discuss “next steps” to widen the initiative’s impact, including broader buy-ins of chemically recycled products by a larger swath of brands.

The coronavirus outbreak may have hobbled many a sustainability program as retailers go into cost-cutting survival mode, but there’s no opportunity like the present, Goulay insisted. “I think the timing is right—now—for the solution.” she said. “There’s so many brand commitments out there about going circular and not sourcing virgin materials.

“I think the pandemic has shown us, even if we had not seen it before, that everything is so tied to our natural ecosystems and we can’t do business as usual through this linear supply chain that we’ve been using,” Goulay said. “The time is right. People are ready for this. ”

Time is certainly of the essence for PVH Corp., whose Tommy Hilfiger subsidiary promised last month to make its products “fully circular” by 2030. Apparel isn’t a naturally innovative space, conceded Samantha Sims, the group’s vice president of environmental sustainability and product stewardship. “To really achieve that big, hairy, audacious target, there’s a number of technologies and solutions that are critical,” she said. “Chemical recycling we deem as one that is just a non-negotiable. It’s critical that we have that in place.”

Whether customer demand is at the tipping point isn’t the question brands should be asking themselves, she added. “It’s not going to be every consumer out there demanding more sustainable product just yet, but we’re seeing enough of it, I think, to help move the conversation.” One of the trends Covid-19 has accelerated, she noted, is consumer interest in sustainability and “with that interest comes more questioning, more wanting access to information.”

The pandemic has been a “really catalyzing moment,” Sims said. “With Covid, people are reevaluating their values and thinking about what’s important, where do they really want to spend that money and what brands do they want to be engaged with. So, we really view it as a catalyzing moment to lean in even more on sustainable product and circularity.”

A consumer-facing recycled-content label, similar to the type found in paper products, might be on the horizon. “I think that labeling piece will be critical,” Sims said. “And it’s getting worked through now. And we’ll see more and more of it come onto the market.”

Gaur agrees. Any label, he said, has to “touch an emotional chord with the consumer” by noting how many trees a recycled product saves or how much clean drinking water it helps ensure. And that’s where communication and storytelling come into play.

Achieving virgin equivalency

Canopy is planning to launch an investment vehicle to help mobilize funds for the construction of 15 to 20 recycled cotton garment and microbial-cellulose-dissolving pulp mills. Rycroft says her hope is that uptake of chemical-recycling technologies will ramp up over the next five years. “I think the investment piece [and] just the sheer kind of presence in terms of market, volume and availability will be the key milestones for the space.”

That scale-up will lead to prices tumbling down, “reaching more virgin equivalency,” predicted Katrin Ley, managing director of Fashion for Good. “And we will also see new collection systems emerging because that’s a piece of the puzzle that we haven’t even talked about here. We need that textile waste to be collected and brought to the right destinations to truly close the loop.”

But all of that is still in front of the Full Circle Textiles Project. Its primary remit, right now, is to draw together previously siloed efforts and test and assess them under real-world conditions. “Can we produce using a brand supply chain and eventually produce a garment that is up to a brand standard and therefore competitive with traditional processes?” Ley asked.

The man-made cellulosic fiber industry, Fashion for Good wrote in its white paper, currently stands at a “critical inflection point” and without immediate action, the continual logging of forests and discharge of hazardous chemicals will “damage ecosystems, threaten livelihoods and have irreversible effects on our climate.”

“We need to test, we need to iterate, we need to implement and we need to do so in a collaborative manner in order to really move towards sustainable closed-loop processes,” Rademan added.