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Circulose – closing the loop on fashion. A product made from discarded cotton

Renewcell’s Circulose aims to optimize reactivity, viscosity, and brightness for efficient use within the textile industry’s value chain. In conversation with Harald Cavalli-Bjorkman

The concept of Renewcell was born from a realization that fashion houses were producing large quantities of waste without receiving any benefits from these cellulose-rich waste materials. Cellulose is one of the abundant organic molecules globally and is already used in various cellulose-based fibers, yet its presence in waste textiles had not been harnessed. The Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, a global research institution for cellulose pulp technology, had been providing innovation that used waste cotton to create a usable fuel. The team saw parallels in the processes for this breakdown with those that could be utilized to make dissolving pulp out of waste cotton. This development, accompanied by the demand for circular materials, caused Renewcell to be founded as a research company in 2012. Within two years, they had produced their first prototype, a yellow dress that proved the possibility to innovate fibers that could be used in textile production. Cavalli-Björkman explains that their recycled pulp product is «easy to adopt within the value chain; it is more practical to work with a fiber that is known and utilized already». They have aimed to ensure that the recycling system is a more sustainable process than manufacturing textiles from raw materials. It uses less water and chemicals and emits less CO2, which helps preserve the world’s resources. «It is a way of making sure that these materials are not incinerated or sent to landfill – it is about taking care of what is already there».

Renewcell has focused on lowering their footprint by utilizing pre-existing production processes and sites; using Swedish-based paper-pulp mills, and adapting them to allow for the production of their raw pulp. They are recycling local infrastructure from water plants to roads, electricity to renewable energy. Renewcell is also harnessing knowledge from the paper mills to create Circulose from the cotton in clothes. In doing this, they can «recycle knowledge», claims Harald Cavalli-Björkman, Chief Marketing Officer & Head of Investor Relations at Renewcell. This concept of using and rebuilding off the back of existing industry is «the next step; an Industrial Evolution». The process itself is less polluting than making clothing from cotton as there is no need for pesticide use, no land is used to grow the crops, and 99 percent less water is needed for recycled Circulose production. Brands are aware of the benefits to the environment and the viability of moving away from cotton use. However, Cavalli-Björkman discusses the importance of maintaining a competitive edge over virgin forest products. «We cannot be expensive so that we can scale up effectively. We want to work for a wide market and to be able to demonstrate the scalability of using recycled textiles so that it is easy for the market to adopt».

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Shredded denim and Circulose pulp. Renewcell

Their production process is less intensive than for traditional cellulose fibers, as, in starting with a textile, they do not have to carry out debarking or chipping of the hardwood. Instead, they focus on utilizing textiles that have reached the end of their lives. Their input relies on sorted textiles from post-consumer partners like Bank & Vogue who they have worked alongside to develop «a process to identify the types of materials that we can recycle». This provides a way for fashion companies to make use of all parts of their textile. «We also use post-industrial waste offcuts as there are high quantities of waste in production before it reaches the customer that we can source directly from mills». Their process begins with the shredding of the input waste material, which is then sorted to produce smaller fibers. It is at this stage that buttons, zippers, and other heavy contaminants are removed. The next step is called the wet pulping process, «where we subject the material to a number of steps such as different acid and alkaline environments, and temperatures, to produce our desired properties». To ensure that their fibers are of the quality that the fashion industry expects, Renewcell focuses on optimizing the fiber’s reactivity, viscosity, and brightness to ensure increased flexibility of the material and high dye uptake. The next stage involves bleaching the fiber to ensure that as much of the existing color is removed. Cavalli-Björkman describes: «We use a chlorine-free gas bleaching process, a standard eco-friendly process widely applied in modern wood pulp mills. The gas reacts and leaves no chemicals in the materials. We adhere to strict Swedish environmental standards and modern pulp manufacturing standards». Once a white pulp is achieved, the fibers are separated, and other contaminants, including synthetic materials and color pigments, are removed. The wet fiber is then dried and pressed into sheets, which are baled to be shipped. Renewcell’s production yields nearly 100 percent of the cotton input. They currently require a high content of cotton in their waste material inputs. While they can reduce the amount of synthetic waste produced as sludge, it makes materials difficult to source. Their next challenge is to decrease this figure from 90 percent and then further gradually.

There are few environmental impacts with the production of Circulose. Cavalli-Björkman is aware that a small quantity of ‘sludge’ is produced, containing the leftover contaminants and dyes. This is currently removed by an industrial waste handling company. The team is investigating how to utilize this waste to circulate back into energy production to power their plant. Another environmental concern is tied up with the transportation of both the input and output products. Waste textiles are sourced from countries including India, and their recycled pulp is circulated around the world. To overcome this issue, Renewcell utilizes its local harbors to ship their fiber around the world. However, Cavalli-Björkman believes that «the CO2 from the transport is negligible compared to the impact from the transport of the individual consumer». Keeping production in one place can be difficult; «Ideally everything would be in one spot; the cellulose processing expertise in Sweden with the built-up infrastructure for textile handling that you have in India, all powered with fossil-free energy». However, this is not the reality and Renewcell needs to compromise where necessary to produce a fiber that can be used globally.

While Cavalli-Björkman believes that the industry needs to change to benefit the environment, he also recognizes the «power of the consumer». There has been an increased interest in the ‘sustainable fashion’ term, and even though an individual would struggle to make a change, consumer pressures act as an aggregate. «We can see that buying trends are shifting towards sustainable products. Search engine trends are showing that there has been an increase in people searching for sustainable brands, rather than fast fashion». This shift reflects the way that consumers want to buy in accordance with their ethics. Consumer desire for sustainability has become more than «a fad – there is more longevity to it, and we are seeing a shift in consumer mentality. Clothes and fashion are expressions of identity».

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Sheets of Circulose. Image Alexander Donka, Renewcell

Renewcell wants to be a pioneer for the future, to pave the way for other pulp-making companies to shift towards sustainability. «We aim to take care of the materials that require human and natural resources to extract from the earth. We should make better use of these materials and ensure that they last for longer». To achieve material’s longevity and innovation, Renewcell has positioned themselves as pioneers for «human progress and our ability to handle the challenges that humanity faces. As consumers are demanding more sustainable products, Renewcell «expects to gain 1.7 billion middle-class consumers by 2030, providing an opportunity for quality within our planetary boundaries». Cavalli-Björkman thinks that production could be modeled on the circularity of the natural world.

IMAGE GALLERY

Renewcell
Cardellgatan 1
114 36 Stockholm, Sweden

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