Coming Full Circle: Innovating towards Sustainable Man-Made Cellulosic Fibres
The examples of innovation below cover textile recycling technologies and the utilisation of agricultural waste feedstocks in the production of regenerated cellulosic pulp and/or production.
As explained in Chapter 4, textile-to-textile recycling provides huge opportunity to alleviate the burden on virgin resources, reduce the amount of textile waste generated, whilst also providing a more efficient process with a better input to output conversion ratio. This creates a fantastic opportunity to convert some of the 20 million tonnes of cotton fabric waste that are disposed annually into MMCFs41.
A recent Canopy report forecasted that converting just 25% of the cotton and rayon textile waste into new dissolving pulp would completely eradicate the need for virgin wood fibre in the production of viscose. A myriad of technological innovations are emerging to convert cotton and other cellulosic garment waste into new regenerated cellulosic fibre, with both established players and disruptive start-ups addressing the opportunity:
- Asahi Kasei, a Japanese chemical producer, introduced Bemberg – a GRS-certified regenerated cupro fibre made from 100% pre-consumer cotton linter with a production capacity of 17,000 tonnes annually42. The most common application for the fibre is in suit lining and lightweight sheer garments.
- In 2019, Birla Cellulose demonstrated their commitment to traceability, innovation and circularity through the introduction of the Liva Reviva line – a viscose fibre using 20% pre-consumer cotton fabric waste and 80% responsibly sourced wood pulp that can be traced from Tier 7 forest-level through their blockchain technology. Birla Cellulose developed the cotton recycling technology in- house and the fibre is certified by the Recycled Claim Standard43. Whilst launching this fibre on a commercial scale, Birla Cellulose are also developing products with recycled content of the fibre to 50% by the end of 2020. Birla Cellulose is also working on integrating post-consumer textile waste into their process and developing fibres based on alternative feedstocks44.
- Lenzing, one of the largest viscose producers in the world, created Refibra – the first lyocell fibre made from recycled materials available on a commercial scale. When offered in 2017, it initially contained 20% pre-consumer cotton waste; however, that number has since increased to 30% in 2019 and now contains post-consumer waste too45. Lenzing’s vision is to increase the recycled content to 50% by 2024, without compromising the quality of the fibres46.
- Sateri, Shanghai headquartered fibre-producer part of the Royal Golden Eagle (RGE) Group, unveiled Finex – a next-generation MMCF made from post-consumer cotton textiles47. They collaborated with pulp producer Södra in the commercial production of recycled man-made cellulosic staple fibres, with recycled content below 5% currently48. It is Sateri’s ambition to continue to innovate and collaborate with downstream players to increase the recycled content to 20%49.
- Södra – the Swedish forest cooperative, announced its new dissolving pulp product named ‘OnceMore®‘ in October 2019. The process is able to separate polycotton blends and extract the cellulosic fibres from the cotton stream. Södra currently only accept white polycotton (or pure cotton) fabrics, but are looking at a decolouring solution. The recycled content of the dissolving pulp began around 2-3% when launched; however, Södra are working to increase the recycled content to 20%, and eventually 50% by 2025 – with an aspirational output of 25,000 tonnes51.
- Tangshan Sanyou, which has over a 9% share of the viscose market, introduced a viscose staple fibre ReVisco in June 2019 – made from 50% post-consumer recycled content, with dissolving pulp supplied by Renewcell. This was successfully brought to market in April 2020, featuring in H&M’s ‘Conscious Exclusive’ line50.
The prominent innovators working in the regeneration of cellulosic fibres can be segmented into two broad categories: those that are focusing on cotton waste and those that are separating the fibres from blended garments and producing two outputs – e.g. extracting both the polyester and cotton from a polycotton garment and valorising both outputs.
- Evrnu is a US-based textile innovations company creating circular solutions through a range of regenerative fibre technologies including cellulosics, regenerative polyester, recoverable stretch and bioengineered materials. In July 2019, Evrnu unveiled their collaboration with Stella McCartney and adidas, which incorporated their cellulosic NuCylTM fibre (60%) blended with virgin cotton (40%). NuCyclTM technologies extend the life cycle of today’s single-use textiles to help provide a powerful solution to the problem of textile waste.
- Finnish Infinited Fiber Company (IFC) was founded in 2016 to commercialise a breakthrough technology that enables cellulose-rich refuse – like pre- and post-consumer textile waste, used cardboard, and agricultural waste – to be regenerated into unique, high-quality, cotton-like fibres, known as cellulose carbamate fibres. Infinited Fiber Company’s process is free of carbon disulphide (CS2) and offers a sustainable and safe alternative to conventional viscose production. Instead of carbon disulphide, the technology uses urea – a safe and natural compound, giving the cotton-like cellulose carbamate fibres their unique characteristics, including their soft and natural look and feel. The Finnish company’s technology is being scaled up with investments from major industry players such as H&M Group and RGE Group52.
INFINITED FIBER COMPANY, WEEKDAY AND MAISIE WILLIAMS COLLABORATION
Creating beautiful denim clothes from 100% regenerated textiles is possible, as shown here by Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams. In 2019, IFC and Maisie Williams teamed up with H&M’s Weekday brand to raise awareness of the need for circularity in fashion and to demonstrate what Infinited Fiber Company’s technology enables. She and Weekday co-designed this unique denim outfit, made of 100% Infinited Fiber and produced completely from regenerated, post- consumer textile waste.
- Renewcell – founded in 2012, is a Swedish chemical recycler that turns cotton waste into dissolving pulp. They have the largest commercial production output of any of the innovators, with their Kristinehamn demonstration plant capable of producing around 7000 tonnes of pulp annually53. They have had significant traction with established upstream fibre manufacturers – partnering with Tangshan Sanyou and others54. Regarding brand engagement, Renewcell’s Circulose® fibre featured in H&M’s 2020 Conscious Exclusive campaign, and has recently announcing a collaboration with denim giant Levi’s Strauss55. Renewcell’s ambition is to grow its recycling capacity to 250,000 tonnes per year by 2026 and it counts H&M Group and KappAhl, another Swedish fashion brand, amongst its strategic investors.
RENEWCELL & LEVI’S
In July 2020, Renewcell announced their biggest collaboration to date, partnering with Levi’s on their Wellthread line. The line of jeans, being described as Levi’s ‘most sustainable jean’ ever, contain 40% Circulose® viscose staple fibre, blended with 60% virgin organic cotton56. The Circulose® fibre itself is comprised of 50% recycled cotton from post-consumer jeans and is blended with wood pulp from a CanopyStyle green shirt producer57. What is more, Levi’s utilised a water-saving dyeing and finishing method, further improving the environmental impact of the denim.
- Saxcell – a spin-off from the Saxion University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands have developed a process that turns cotton textile waste into regenerated cellulosic pulp, which can then be spun into a new fibre using the viscose or lyocell process. They are currently increasing the production to 100 kilograms of pulp per day, which has been made possible through a recently signed shareholder agreement between three Turkish textile companies who will take ownership of the fibre, yarn and garment production steps of the supply chain58.
BLENDED WASTE STREAM
The innovators concentrating on the blended waste stream are generally less technologically developed than other textile-to-textile recycling technologies. This is in part due to the challenge in separating the fibres from blended garments – leading to long R&D times as well as significant investment required. However, given its been estimated 40% of the textile waste stream is comprised of blended garments, they are tackling an immense problem with a huge opportunity to bring high-value recycled fibres to market at scale59.
- Founded in 2018, Australia-based Blocktexx has developed a patent pending process that combines chemical recovery technology and advanced manufacturing to separate and recycle polyester and cotton blends. The company raised seed funding of over $500k in mid-2019, which enabled the optimisation of their technology in a pilot plant alongside trial projects with supply and demand partners60.
- Phoenxt is a blend recycler with a vision to develop and commercialise its circular recycling technology, in order to offer an effective, sustainable, environmental solution. It uses an innovative proprietary chemical engineered process to separate and purify textile waste products, molecularly dissolve and reformulate into base polymer materials. Its fibre separation technology is solvent-free, and it focuses on blended fibres such as poly, cotton, and other plant base natural cellulosic fibres. Hence Phoenxt acts as a bridge between end-of-use cycle textiles and raw material supply, creating new materials from the existing waste without extracting more natural resource
- Tyton BioSciences developed a water-based hydrothermal solution to recycle cotton, polyester and polycotton blended fabrics. Their low impact process can separate polyester from cotton by breaking it down to its monomer building blocks so it can be remade into virgin polyester while maintaining the integrity of the cellulose for use in MMCFs as a virgin tree pulp substitute. Earlier this year, Tyton BioSciences closed an $8 million Series A round led by Tin Shed Ventures – the investment arm of apparel brand Patagonia – along with the major Japanese integrated trading and investment business conglomerate Marubeni, which will be used to accelerate their journey to commercialisation61.
- Worn Again is a UK-based enhanced chemical recycling innovator that is working to recapture raw materials from non-reusable products through a proprietary solvent-based technology. Their unique polymer recycling technology is able to separate, decontaminate and extract polyester and cellulose (from cotton) from non-reusable textile to produce dual PET and cellulose outputs, therefore putting sustainable resources back into production supply chains. In January 2020, Worn Again announced the launch of their pilot R&D facility which will help to refine their technology and accelerate their journey to commercialisation62. This was further propelled when they received an additional €8 million investment in June 2020 from two of their existing strategic investors, H&M Group and industrial engineering firm Sulzer63.
ALTERNATIVE NON-TEXTILE FEEDSTOCKS
As well as using cotton textiles as a feedstock for (regenerated) viscose production, innovation is emerging in the field of using agricultural by-products as alternative feedstocks.
- Algalife, founded in 2016, creates dyes and fibres from algae. The algae is blended with virgin wood pulp to create fibres and is a drop-in solution for spinners – meaning that minimal machinery adjustments should be required in the downstream supply chain. A 100% algae feedstock is in the research and development pipeline.
- The Dutch Inspidere have developed a method to convert cellulose from dairy cow manure into regenerative cellulose fibres, known as Mestic. In doing so, reliance on virgin resource input is reduced and contamination of nearby agricultural soils and waters are prevented64. Moreover, methane gas production is reduced as when not utilised, the decomposition of manure releases the harmful greenhouse gas into the environment.
- Another innovator addressing the issue is Orange Fiber – an Italian start-up utilising some of the 700,000 tonnes of citrus juice waste that is produced annually. They have created a patented process to extract the citrus cellulose from the orange peel (known as the pastazzo), to then be spun into a fibre comparable to MMCFs65. They have had significant industry traction; collaborating with the luxury Italian brand Salvatore Ferragamo’s 2017 capsule collection and H&M in their conscious collection in 201966.
Publicly-listed Australian research and development company Nanollose are focused on discovering, developing and commercialising processes related to microbial nanocellulose. With their proprietary technology, they are able to turn biomass waste products from the food and beverage industry into microbial cellulose, which is then converted into rayon fibres using Nanollose technology.
NANOLLOSE AND BIRLA CELLULOSE
Birla Cellulose is exploring alternative feedstocks in cellulose production – with Birla Cellulose signing a collaborative agreement to become an industrial partner to the Australian innovator Nanollose67.
The collaboration provides Nanollose with access to Birla’s deep industry expertise and state-of-the-art facilities, accelerating the journey towards commercialisation. The long-term partnership will allow the optimisation and scaling of Nanollose’s Tree-Free fibres – alleviating the burden on virgin raw materials68.
- Finnish innovator Spinnova have developed a technology that can turn pulp into textile fibre without regenerating or dissolving with harmful chemicals. Acknowledging the opportunity to turn waste produce into high value output, Spinnova have begun researching the possibility of using wheat straw as a feedstock to use in their mechanical process and have had initial successful lab scale trials. Spinnova have had significant traction with investors, recently closing an €11 million growth capital round from their existing investor base – which will be used to help scale their operations towards commercialisation69.
- The Hurd Co. is a US-based innovator that makes agriloseTM: a MMCF feedstock pulp made entirely from post-harvest plant material. The company’s patented technology works with multiple types of agricultural waste, and produces pulp that is compatible with existing extrusion methods. The lignin and sugar by-products are then used in the bioplastic and biofuels industry, increasing the circularity of the innovation, as well as recapturing and reusing 99% of the solvent used in the process.
The above examples of disruptive innovation replacing the use of virgin wood feedstock in MMCF production are critical in achieving greater circularity in the industry; however, these examples cannot operate in silos. They are reliant on full collaboration and cooperation from the industry – with some of the most successful implementation examples being achieved when tackled by multiple stakeholders. The multi-stakeholder consortium structure is necessary to create harmonised industry buy-in and thus facilitating the next evolution of closed-loop production in the MMCF industry.
Chemical recycling faces multiple barriers to scale and industry adoption; a key barrier being risk-tolerant investment for innovations that can enable testing, refinement and scale. We hope that our investment in the Full Circle Textiles Project will enable wider adoption and catalytic investment across the industry to map the course of change together.Anita Chester, Head of Materials, Laudes Foundation (formerly C&A Foundation)