Photographed and documented by Courtney Holm


Can Clothes Really Be Recycled?
Courtney Holm

Sometimes I hear about garment recycling as being the act of donating old clothes to a charity shop to be bought and used by another person. This is not recycling. This is re-using, and if someone mends a broken garment or uses it to create something else, this might at best be called up-cycling or at worst down-cycling. So, what happens when garments can't be used anymore? And what happens when the charity shop can't resell the clothes due to poor quality or over supply? More often than we think, our unwanted clothing goes to landfill where, no matter the fibre content, it cannot break down easily due to the toxic environment. So what is the solution? Is ANYONE actually recycling clothing? And how is this even possible?

In 2018 I had the opportunity to visit one of the first commercial scale garment recycling facilities. Based in Tai Po (about 1 hr from Hong Kong) it sits very close to the Shenzhen border and the world of Chinese manufacturing.

Back then it was three months old. The facility is run by a company called Novetex - the commercial arm of the business. It is largely researched and supported by the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) which is a government funded, not-for-profit company based at PolyU: The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. 

HKRITA has been developing world class recycling capabilities from post-consumer garments in an effort to divert the enormous amount of textiles that head to landfill. In Australia alone, we send 6000kg of textile waste to landfill every ten minutes. (War on Waste + Textile Beat) Working closely with companies like I:CO (they facilitate customer garment collection from places like H&M), the HKRITA Novetex facility is taking these garments and giving them a new life.

Recycled Garment Future Applications
Possible applications for recycled yarns.

I'll run through the processes and how it all works, for anyone who is as fascinated by this stuff as I am!

There are two main ways that the garments are recycled in this facility - mechanically and chemically/ biologically. The chemical/ biological process has two very different processes that are still being fined tuned and developed for commercial application. 

Garment Sorting by HandEach garment that enters the facility must be sorted by hand to determine fibre content.

With each of these methods, there is a sorting process that is done by hand to determine the fibre type of each garment, as this will determine which process it undergoes for recycling. Trims like zippers and buttons are removed by hand also. The facility hopes to use AI to make this process fully automated in the future.

Chemical - Closed Loop - For Polyester/ Cotton blended garments

1. Garments are sorted by material + colour and shred into strips
2. Hydrothermal chemical + water is applied to the textiles in large vats
3. Filtration of the liquid (this substance contains both the reaction solution and the cotton part of the material which is now just cellulose matter) 
4. PET fibres remain, looking like a white, fibrous substance which can be spun into new PET yarns
5. The liquid is further filtered to extract the cellulose powders which can be used to create new cellulose fibre such as viscose
6. Chemicals are re-used again and again in this process in a closed loop system

Chemical Vats for Poly/Cotton Recycling
Vats for Chemical Recycling Process, Shredding Poly/Cotton garments, Vats for Biological Recycling Process

Biological - Closed Loop
- For Polyester/ Cotton blended garments

1. Garments are soaked in a "pre-treatment" to soften them
2. Garments are submerged into fermentation which comprises of a natural fungal mash and broth
3. Enzymatic hydrolysis occurs, where the fungi "eat" away at the cotton fibre while the PET is left behind
4. The product is refined, and what is left over from the cotton element is a glucose-rich hydrolysate which can be made useful as bio-based products like succinic acid, poly(lactic) acid and bio-surfactant, which is mostly applied in other industries
5. The PET fibres are able to be spun into new yarns

Stages of the fibres in chemical/biological recyclingFrom post-consumer shredded garments to recycled polyester fibres to recycled and de-coloured polyester fibres.

Mechanical - Shredding
- For any type of fibre blend in garments

1. After garment sorting, the clothing is piled onto trays which enter a colour sorting conveyor belt
2. A camera photographs the garments and a robot determines which colour profile bin the garment must go to
3. Garments continue along the conveyor belt, passing the colour coded bins and as soon as the garment reaches its corresponding colour, a blast of air will shoot it off the belt and into the bin (see video below as this is sooo cool)
4. Once bins are full, the garments are mechanically shredded into tiny fibres
5. The fibres are meshed together into sheets that look similar to wadding
6. From here the recycled fibres are extruded into slivers and blended with various virgin fibres (depending on the final application) as they are not strong enough to be used on their own
7. Because the original garments were sorted by colour, the idea is that there is now no need for bleaching, or re-dyeing as the yarns retain their original colours, and what results is a melange look
8. The slivers are spun into yarns ready for knitting (note, the fibres are not yet strong enough to be made into woven materials) and this may be in circular form, ready made, or Wholegarment technology
9. At the end of the process, the finished yarn is scanned to determine the end fibre % as the original garments may have been blended with many fibres from polyester, to cashmere, to nylon to silk!

Robots send each individual garment to its respective bin. Watch how the clothes are colour sorted!

The mechanical process can be viewed on a smaller scale at The Mills, a preservation project, gallery and co-working space in Hong Kong, where customers can drop off their old sweater and in three hours receive a new sweater, which is partly made from their original garment! It's pretty neat.

Undyed Recycled Garment Fibres
Slivers to yarns to finished garment. No dyes or bleaches needed, this colour is the result of the original garment colours!

After hearing from the HKRITA and Novetex team, it occurred to me that this type of recycling should be a last case scenario, not as a way to justify the fast fashion business model. One of the key issues they face is the quality of the garments that they receive, the difficulty to determine the actual contents of a garment when you look at the ENTIRE raw material breakdown and the loss of quality with the mechanical process that occurs each time a garment is recycled. The scale at which they can grow is also concerning, with so many garments being discarded and their current capacity so small, it will take thousands of factories like this to combat the fashion waste crisis.

Garments Ready for Recycling
Garments pile up as they wait for recycling.

When I told them more about A.BCH, our circular design approach and how we know the exact fibre content in every garment, down to the interlinings and sewing threads, they were pretty surprised. If everyone designed this way, it would change everything. There is also so much more that they need to develop when it comes to AI and data to help make this viable at scale.

So while there is immense hope and excitement in these new areas of development for post-consumer garments and textiles, like all recycling, to reduce and re-use is always better. It made me feel even more determined, despite the naysayers, to ensure that each A.BCH garment is made for circularity so that whether it ends up re-used or up-cycled, sent to a recycling facility like this one, or cut up in our customer's compost bin, our garments always have SOMEWHERE to go and its ecological footprint will be small.

Founder, Courtney Holm at the Recycling FacilityI nerd out sometimes, this was definitely one of those times.

The future is bright! In the meantime, let's all think deeply about what we really need, from whom we are buying our clothes and what we are supporting with our purchases. I've said it before, I truly believe it is possible for everyone to participate in ethical fashion without spending a tonne of money and I hope through A.BCH we can continue to prove this. By providing free information on our site, tools and workshops for people to participate and offering simple solutions through our designs, we won't give up.

I would also LOVE to hear your questions and thoughts about the recycling facility! Email me, or why not signup to get all our circular news direct to your inbox?

Shop all products with recycled or upcycled materials here.