Renewcell and Kelheim Fibres Gmbh recently signed a letter of intent to develop commercial production of viscose fibers from up to 10,000 tonnes annually of Renewcell’s 100% textile recycled material Circulose. The collaboration is exciting because it provides a vehicle for scaling fully closed-loop recycling and regeneration of sustainable textile fibers.
Renewcell and its Circulose technology have been garnering significant attention in the textile fiber space since the Swedish company was founded in 2012. Renewcell is the product of research and development that began at Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology. Having earned a number of industry awards since spinning out of KTH, the company’s vision is to “inspire an industrial evolution to a sustainable world by producing high-quality materials from recycled textiles.”
Through its patented process, Renewcell is able to upcycle cellulosic textile waste, such as cotton clothes, transforming it into a pristine new material called Circulose. Fast Company named Renewcell one of the “World’s Most Innovative Companies” in 2021, and Circulose was included on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 Best Inventions of 2020.
Circulose is a branded dissolving pulp product that Renewcell makes from 100% textile waste, such as worn-out jeans and production scraps.
Dissolving pulp cellulose is what the textile industry uses to make viscose, lyocell, modal, acetate and other types of regenerated fibers – the only difference with Circulose is that it’s made from textile waste instead of wood.
In April, the Danish fashion house Bestseller launched its first garments made with Circulose through the Vero Moda and Selected Brands.
In June, the company signed an agreement with the Spanish fashion house Inditex, one of the world’s largest fashion houses and owner of brands such as Zara, Masso Dutti, Bershka and Pull and Bear, for a pilot project for closed-loop textile production.
And in early 2022, Levi’s will launch a version of its most iconic product, the 501 Original, made with organic cotton and post-consumer recycled denim, and designed to itself be recyclable. The launch is part of the ongoing partnership between Renewcell and Levi’s and it is notable because it moves the iconic 501 and Levi’s brands toward a sustainable future based on circular products and practices.
In late 2020, Renewcell closed on a financing agreement to execute its plans to build and commission a 60,000 tonne capacity textile recycling plant in Sundsvall, Sweden.
Kelheim Fibres has long been recognized as a leading manufacturer of specialty viscose fibers. With more than 500 employees working from its headquarters in Kelheim, Germany, Kelheim Fibres has been in existence for 85 years and currently manufactures 90,000 tons of viscose fiber annually. The company has been particularly active on the sustainability front, having in recent years earned top sustainability ratings for viscose fiber producers in the Canopy Hot Button and EcoVadis CSR programs, and earlier this year it became the first viscose manufacturer validated to EMAS, the European Union’s Eco-Management and Audit Scheme.
The partnership between Renewcell and Kelheim provides the opportunity to ramp up the Circulose technology to meet the growing demand for more sustainable textile fiber options – a trend that is undeniable at the brand and consumer levels. In this installment of IFJ’s Executive Q&A, we interviewed Marina Crnoja-Cosic, Ph.D., director New Business Development for Kelheim Fibres, and Harald Cavalli-Björkman, chief growth officer for Renewcell, to provide some insight on the technology behind this partnership, how it came to be, and why it is important for the textile fiber industry as it pursues circular solutions to the challenge of textile waste.
Matt Migliore: How did the partnership between Kelheim and Renewcell come to be? Why is this partnership attractive/important from the perspective of each company?
Marina Crnoja-Cosic: Kelheim Fibres has been exploring the possibility to use recycled cellulose as a raw material for several years. Over this period, we have been in contact with Renewcell, and as the dialogue has progressed, the two companies have determined that there is exciting potential in a closer cooperation. This will allow Kelheim to further expand its specialty viscose fiber portfolio with an innovative new range of products and to build on its strong sustainability performance by incorporating recycled raw materials in the production process.
Harald Cavalli-Björkman: For Renewcell the collaboration with Kelheim Fibres means that we will be able to provide a European loop for circular textiles. For the first time, it will be possible to create new virgin quality garments from European textile waste. This is very much in line with growing demand from fashion brands, policy makers and consumers.
Matt Migliore: What is Circulose and how is it produced?
Harald Cavalli-Björkman: Circulose is a branded dissolving pulp product that Renewcell makes from 100% textile waste, such as worn-out jeans and production scraps.
We receive used garments and textile production waste with high cellulosic content, like cotton or viscose. The textiles are shredded, de-buttoned, de-zipped, de-colored and turned into a slurry. Contaminants and other non-cellulosic content are separated from the slurry.
The slurry is dried to produce a pure, natural Circulose branded dissolving pulp made from 100% recycled textiles. The sheets of Circulose are finally packaged into bales and fed back into the textile production value chain as a replacement for virgin materials like cotton, oil and wood.
Matt Migliore: How will the two companies be collaborating as part of this partnership? What is each company bringing to the relationship in terms of capabilities and resources?
Marina Crnoja-Cosic: The partnership will be based on a close collaboration between the two companies. Kelheim Fibres will contribute its expertise in manufacturing high-quality, innovative products in sustainable, environmentally secured processes, while Renewcell will supply Circulose raw materials manufactured in their newly constructed plant in Sweden, as well as their expertise in sourcing used textile products for their manufacturing. Renewcell has also established potential supply chains in the European market, which will be fed with fiber manufactured in Europe at the Kelheim plant.
Matt Migliore: How are the waste garments sourced for the recycling process that produces Circulose? What, if anything, needs to happen to ensure the waste streams are available to scale the Circulose solution to meet the needs of a wider market?
Harald Cavalli-Björkman: We know that many millions of tonnes of cellulosic textiles are wasted in landfills and incinerators every year. The challenge is to make that waste available for recycling. Over the last year and a half, Renewcell has signed contracts with a strong network of collectors and sorters of textile waste that have the capability of supplying sorted fractions of textile waste that cannot be sold second hand. We are working with these partners to identify and divert additional streams of waste textiles and to scale up the collection and sorting infrastructure ahead of the new EU rules for mandatory separate collection of textiles coming into force in 2025.
Matt Migliore: What are the primary challenges Renewcell faces in scaling its technology? How does a partnership between Kelheim and Renewcell potentially help overcome those challenges?
Harald Cavalli-Björkman: Our goal is to scale up textile-to-textile recycling as quickly as possible. To do that, we need to align closely with the expressed demand from brands and consumers in terms of quality, scale and overall sustainability. With our partnership with Kelheim, we do just that — providing superior quality fibers, made in market-leading sustainable processes in commercial scale with minimal need of transport. It lets us demonstrate the promise of textile recycling and accelerate investment in the scaling of our technology.
Matt Migliore: Why have cotton and viscose traditionally been challenging to recycle? How does the Renewcell technology help overcome this challenge?
Harald Cavalli-Björkman: The challenge for textile-to-textile recycling has been to achieve a quality that makes recycled fibers a direct alternative to conventional virgin fibers. With mechanically recycled fibers, brands and consumers have had to accept limited performance in the finished product in terms strength and hand feel. With our chemical recycling technology and a MMCF production process, brands and consumers get a fiber of staple or continuous length with equal physical properties to the virgin equivalent.
We know that many millions of tonnes of cellulosic textiles are wasted in landfills and incinerators every year. The challenge is to make that waste available for recycling. Over the last year and a half, Renewcell has signed contracts with a strong network of collectors and sorters of textile waste that have the capability of supplying sorted fractions of textile waste that cannot be sold second hand.
Matt Migliore: What do you see as the long-term potential for this partnership? Five years into the future, what do you hope Kelheim and Renewcell will have achieved having worked together during those years?
Marina Crnoja-Cosic: There is a growing need to see reduced waste and a return to local sourcing in textile supply chains, both at the consumer and at the political level. Nowhere is this need more acute than in Europe.
The partnership between Kelheim Fibres and Renewcell is a game changer in the European textile market and will make a significant, commercial-scale contribution to meeting this need.
Harald Cavalli-Björkman: We will build on this collaboration to continuously expand the European supply of recycled textile fibers for all possible applications and segments. We will keep gaining market share on conventional virgin cotton and eventually also polyester. This partnership will hopefully add further momentum to the localization of textile supply chains, while avoiding harmful impact on climate and environment.