Fast retail has led to shorter life cycles for garments. Of the more than 60 million tons (54.4 million tonnes) of natural and synthetic textile fibers produced for clothing every year, 73% are incinerated or landfilled, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
While it is common in many countries to recycle materials such as plastic, glass, and paper, it is estimated that only 1% of clothing is recycled into new garments. This is due to the fact that textiles are rather complex systems containing various types of fibers, dyes, fillers, and additives, making them difficult to recycle.
Sulzer, an expert in separation and chemical recycling technologies, has taken up the challenge of solving this pressing environmental issue. It has partnered with clothing retailer, H&M, to develop the UK-based company Worn Again, an innovator in textile recycling technology, which aspires to enable full circularity in the garment industry. The teams are working on a unique textile recycling process to convert textiles back into virgin-like raw materials. The key is separating and recovering polyethylene terephthalate (PET) — a common component of clothes, and cotton or other cellulosics — from end-of-use textiles.
Sulzer provides the equipment, technology, and expertise which is combined with Worn Again’s unique solvent technology to form the heart of the process. The process converts end-of-use polyester and cotton garments into polyester pellets and cellulosic pulp that can further be re-spun into new fibers.
After extensive research and development, the results from the pilot plant have been promising. Sulzer’s experts are now engineering a larger demonstration plant to further scale-up the technology to an output of 1000 tons (907 tonnes) a year, the final proof of concept before commercialization.