The scientists at Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA), have found new technology to extract and reuse polyester fibres infinitely into new clothes as each year only a fraction is recycled of the 80 bn pieces of clothing produced and it is currently working for cotton-polyester blended fabrics, the institute announced last month.

The polyester fibres can be made into new garments straightaway with no loss in quality, which is why this new technology is being dubbed fibre-to-fibre recycling, Dr Gloria Yao, Project Development Director of HKRITA and the lead researcher for this technology, said. Compared to the production of virgin polyester, this method consumes 70 per cent less energy. HKRITA’s new methodology requires limited manpower, simple equipment that textile recycling companies may already own, and the water used in the process can be recycled.

HKRITA-patented chemical solution is used to break down cotton into cellulose particles in a process that combines heat and water, and separated from the fabric. The project is part of HKRITA’s four-year partnership with the nonprofit H&M Foundation that began in 2016. Called the Closed-Loop Apparel Recycling Eco-System Programme, it aims to find at least one technology to recycle clothes from blended textiles.

Erik Bang, innovation lead at the H&M Foundation, said that the project team is working on a pilot plant slated to be operational within the next 12 months. Their goal is to have the technology ready for the market by 2020. Once ready, the technology will be made available to companies through licensing, the terms of which have yet to be decided by HKRITA, which will own the licence. HKRITA’s fibre-to-fibre method currently only works to repurpose polyester—a petroleum-based fibre found in most apparel—and further work is needed before it can recover other materials, said HKRITA’s Yao.

The research institute is also planning to study how cotton cellulose by product can be re-made into fibres and turned into clothing. Polyester has been a pivotal part of the clothing industry made from petroleum-based chemicals, about 65 per cent of polyester produced globally goes into textile production. Brands such as Uniqlo and H&M have started garment take back programmes, only a fraction of the collected clothing can be recycled.

According to Bang, if fibre-to-fibre project succeeds, the fashion industry could meet the growing global demand for clothes without having to rely on virgin materials—saving precious natural resources and significantly reducing its impact on the climate and natural ecosystem.