The Swedish retailer, which has committed to collecting used clothes in stores in an effort to keep them out of landfills and give them a second life, is taking on an issue that’s stymied scientists for years.
While it’s currently possible to mechanically recycle single fiber fabrics such as denim jeans and wool sweaters, a lot of garments are made from a blend of different fibers. For instance, a pair of women’s jeans might be made from a blend comprising 94 percent cotton, 5 percent polyester and 1 percent elastane, to improve fit, style and comfort. When these garments reach the end of their lives, they usually end up discarded in landfills or downcycled into low-value applications like insulation or carpeting.
That’s why H&M Foundation, the retailer’s nonprofit arm, and the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) have teamed up to develop the required technologies to recycle blended textiles into new fabrics and yarns. The four-year partnership, announced Tuesday, aims to create a commercially viable and scalable technology that can be licensed widely to ensure broad market access and maximum impact.
“This is one of the biggest and most comprehensive efforts ever for textile recycling. The overall aim for us as a foundation is to protect the planetary boundaries and work to ensure living conditions. We want to develop at least one ready technology to recycle clothes made from textile blends into new clothes,” said Erik Bang, project manager at H&M Foundation, noting, “This would be a major breakthrough in the journey towards a closed loop for textiles in the fashion industry.”
Edwin Keh, chief executive officer of HKRITA, continued, “We look forward to providing practical solutions to a pressing local and global challenge.”
H&M Foundation is contributing 5.8 million euros ($6.5 million) to HKRITA to develop a series of research projects, while the Innovation and Technology Fund of the Hong Kong SAR Government will provide additional funding and support.
More than 12,000 tons of garments were collected in H&M stores in 2015—that’s as much fabric as in more than 60 million T-shirts—and more than one million products introduced last year were made with at least 20 percent recycled material from collected garments.