The opening of the new pre-industrial sized facility in Hong Kong marks the first time that H&M’s hydrothermal recycling technology is put into practice at scale. The innovative recycling method involves using heat, water and a blend of biodegradable chemicals to separate cotton and polyester from mixed fabrics. Once the fibres are separated, they can be sorted for reuse in new garments, including jeans.

The H&M Foundation claims that this method, which it calls “Garment-to-Garment recycling”, prevents the potential for chemical pollution finding its way into the environment while minimising carbon emissions and costs. While the plant will initially be used by H&M only, the retailer has pledged to licence the technology, so it can be used by other fashion manufacturers.

The Foundation’s innovation lead Erik Bang said the opening of the plant, which was co-funded by The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA), marks a “significant step towards a new fashion industry that operates within the planetary boundaries”.

“As we scale up and make this technology freely available to the industry, we will reduce the dependence on limited natural resources to dress a growing global population,” Bang said.

Alongside the Garment-to-Garment plant, the H&M Foundation is showcasing a miniaturised version of the recycling technology at a pop-up H&M store in Hong Kong in a bid to educate customers about the importance of recycling. Customers are being encouraged to bring their unwanted or end-of-life clothing to the temporary store, where they will have the chance to see the technology first-hand.

“Seeing is believing, and when customers see with their own eyes what a valuable resource garments at the end of life can be, they can also believe in recycling and recognise the difference their actions can make,” Bang added.

Cradle-to-cradle clothes

The H&M Foundation and HKRITA predict they will collectively invest more than £5.2m (€5.8m) on sustainable fashion initiatives over the next four years, with 50% of this funding set to be earmarked for research into textile recycling. The remainder of the investment will be spent on projects which promote inclusion and diversity in the fashion industry.

The move comes shortly after H&M announced it would be one of the brands leading a new Ellen MacArthur Foundation initiative that aims to help drive a circular fashion industry, along with Nike, GAP and Burberry.

The brands, joined by HSBC and Stella McCartney, have pledged through the Make Fashion Circular project to create business models which will keep garments in use, utilise materials which are renewable and find ways of recycling old clothes into new products.

It is thought that these moves could help the global fashion industry to capture $460bn currently lost due to the underutilisation of clothes each year, as well as $100bn from clothing that could be used but is currently lost to landfill and incineration.

Within its own operations, H&M said in 2016 that it was more than a quarter of the way towards its goal of becoming “truly circular” by 2030. The company is currently one of the world’s biggest users of recycled polyester and in January, unveiled a new sportswear collection for women that is predominately made from PCR polyester.

Sarah George

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