HKRITA Shows Garment-to-Garment Recycling Can Be Done, But Industry Yet to Catch Up

The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel's (HKRITA) novel Garment-to-Garment (G2G) Recycle System shows that integral and closed-loop garment recycling can indeed be done, and sans any water and chemicals, but no big-time manufacturer or brand has been able to use this innovation at the industrial or mass scale. A texfash.com Special.

Long Story, Cut Short
  • The G2G system is a mini-scale production line set up in a retail shop recycling post-consumer garment to a new one.
  • The G2G doesn’t aim to handle mass production. It is an educational tool for promoting the concepts of recycling and sustainability.
  • It closes the loop in the sense that it keeps the materials that make the clothes in circulation as long as possible, though the form, the shape of the old clothes is changed.
The recycling process can be configured in a 40-foot container, including the 3-in-1 Integrated Opening-Cleaning-Carding System with AI algorithms to optimise the system.
Recycling Contained The recycling process can be configured in a 40-foot container, including the 3-in-1 Integrated Opening-Cleaning-Carding System with AI algorithms to optimise the system. Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel

At the very fundamental level, clothes are still made in the way that they were millennia ago. It's still crop to fibres to yarn to fabric to cloth. You still can't put the (harvested) crop at one end of a machine and take out a garment from the other. But the nearest that one can come to this—putting a garment at one end and take out a refurbished one at the other—is indeed possible.

The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel's (HKRITA) novel Garment-to-Garment (G2G) Recycle System has been doing that. Set up in 2018, the G2G system is a mini-scale production line set up in a retail shop recycling post-consumer garment to a new one. It is more than proof of concept; it shows that integral and closed-loop garment recycling can indeed be done, and that too without using any water and chemicals.

The other side of the story is this: no big-time manufacturer or brand has been able to do this at the industrial or mass scale. The closest is H&M's Looop, which in any case is a G2G derivative.

The technology behind the Looop was created by the non-profit H&M Foundation, together with HKRITA and Hong Kong-based yarn spinner Novetex Textiles. H&M's official description goes thus: "Looop uses a technique that dissembles and assembles old garments into new ones. The garments are cleaned, shredded into fibres and spun into new yarn which is then knitted into new fashion finds. Some sustainably sourced virgin materials need to be added during the process, and we of course work to make this share as small as possible. The system uses no water and no chemicals, thus having a significantly lower environmental impact than when producing garments from scratch." Looop was opened to the public at H&M's Drottninggatan stores in Stockholm in October 2020.

H&M's Looop opened to the public at its Drottninggatan stores in Stockholm in October 2020. This was the first time this garment-to-garment recycling system was shown in store by a fashion retailer.
Show Off H&M's Looop opened to the public at its Drottninggatan stores in Stockholm in October 2020. This was the first time this garment-to-garment recycling system was shown in store by a fashion retailer. H&M Group

G2G shows that it can be done

The HKRITA is known for its cutting-edge innovations and inventions, and the idea about the G2G obviously was never about mass production. That’s not what the HKRITA does.

Explains John Leung, Senior Research Manager: "The G2G doesn’t aim to handle mass production. It is an educational tool for promoting the concepts of recycling and sustainability. But we have expanded the system capacity, optimised functionality and automated the process in the Phase II development by using AI algorithms and introducing a 3-in-1 fibre processing system. For mechanical recycling to handle mass production, we have developed a system to upcycle post-consumer blends. It has now been adopted by Novetex Textiles where the system is called the Billie System."

The G2G remains much lauded and awarded. Says Leung: "Over the years, the G2G has not only received different awards, but also aroused the interest of different fashion brands, textile companies and retailers. In 2020, H&M launched the first retail model of the G2G system ‘Looop' in Stockholm. We will keep promoting it so that more industry counterparts will agree the G2G mission on waste reduction and recycling. Besides, other than recycling old clothes for the general public, we have also been working with businesses and educational organisations to develop new recycled products and promote closed-loop recycling."

But technically, does it actually close the loop, because what the system essentially does is increase the longevity of a garment (by giving it a new life)? Outlines Leung: "The G2G is a mini-production line for recycling a post-consumer garment to a new one. Customers can bring their old clothes which will then be broken down into fibres and respun into new yarns to become the raw material for new knitwear. It closes the loop in the sense that it keeps the materials that make the clothes in circulation as long as possible, though the form, the shape of the old clothes is changed."

Set up as a mini-factory in The Mills in September 2018, G2G is the world’s first post-consumer garment recycling system that can be operated in retail spaces.
Mini-Factory Set up as a mini-factory in The Mills in September 2018, G2G is the world’s first post-consumer garment recycling system that can be operated in retail spaces. Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel

What does the future hold?

Can we see in the future what it is like with washing machine centres in the US: put your garments, pay the amount, and collect your new garment at the other end? Says Leung: "Serving as an education model on recycling is one of the aims of doing this project, as said before; we want people to appreciate the value of clothes, think before they buy. There are still many potential applications of G2G. For example, it can be a workstation for designers to produce custom-made fashion items. The designers make clothes when they receive customers’ orders; they don’t need to keep stock. The new business model helps decrease waste in the sense of reducing old clothes being thrown out and dead stock."

The way things work now, this is more or less getting your old garment back in a new form or shape. What happens when people start asking for different colours or event designs? Will we see a new advanced system that will do all that as well? Leung answers: "The G2G is a waterless design in that it does not encourage further dyeing. If it only recycles one old garment into a new one, the colour of the new garment will depend on the colour of the original one with a paler intensity since some virgin fibres are needed to add in order to enhance yarn strength. But there will be change of colour by mixing more than one old garment of different colours and remake a new one.

"Since the HKRITA is an R&D centre to develop technologies or solutions to solve the technical problems of textiles and clothing industries, we focus on technology development instead of fashion style development. At present, we have eight styles for customers’ selection. But potential licensee can actually put in a lot more styles in it as the knitting part of the G2G system accepts file input of many design styles of knitwear."

The G2G has undergone a Phase II development which aims to reduce manpower and increase production capacity:

  • an AI algorithm has been developed to classify incoming garment’s measurable properties,
  • a vision classification algorithm has also been developed to estimate recycle process parameters setting and automatically review if the fibres need to be reopened,
  • a 3-in-1 fibre processing system has been installed to increase the degree of automation and capacity, and
  • a 3D body scanner is applied to acquire accurate body measurement, ensuring that the recycled garment fits well.
In September 2017, only one year into the four-year long partnership, HKRITA presented a technological breakthrough with a hydrothermal method for recycling cotton and polyester blends into new fibres. Blends are the most common, yet unrecyclable, type of textile in the world.
Quite a Blend In September 2017, only one year into the four-year long partnership, HKRITA presented a technological breakthrough with a hydrothermal method for recycling cotton and polyester blends into new fibres. Blends are the most common, yet unrecyclable, type of textile in the world. H&M Group

Short takes

How many garments can be recycled/processed at a time? Does a person have to wait till the earlier piece of garment is recycled? The old garments are processed in a pipeline, meaning that there could be multiple garments under processing in the G2G system, each at different recycling and processing stages. There is no need to wait for the completion of a garment recycling before we start working on another old garment.

How many people are required to operate the system? Usually two operators are needed—one mainly looks after the fibre recovery and recycling, another concentrates on knitting and finishing.

Once a garment has been recycled, how long is it expected to last? The longevity of recycled garment is similar with normal garments.

How many cycles of garment recycling can the system do in a day? It takes 4 hours to 2 days to recycle a garment, depending on its structure complexity.

What kind of fibres does it recycle? It covers a wide range of materials such as cotton, PET, wool, nylon, viscose or blended materials of them. Materials that contain Lycra, spandex, down, and leather are not suitable.

What is the effective waste that is generated? How are things like buttons/zippers handled? Hard trims such as buttons and zippers are unable to go through the recycling process; so they are removed manually. We keep the buttons for using them in other research projects.

For an ordinary person, if I take a garment to a place which has the G2G System, how much will it cost me? Is it more effective than buying a new garment? The service costs HKD499/~USD64 at The Mills in Hong Kong. The production and consumption of the textiles and clothing industries have great impact on the environment and climate change. Waste elimination in the industries can foster a circular economy. The G2G aims to promote circularity and recycling of post-consumer garments which are challenging for developed cities like Hong Kong. The G2G makes garment recycling workable in places like a shopping mall where customers are able to see how their old clothes can be recycled into new ones and rethink the intrinsic value of clothes. That is the value of the G2G.

Serving as an education model on recycling is one of the aims of doing this project, as said before; we want people to appreciate the value of clothes, think before they buy. There are still many potential applications of G2G. For example, it can be a workstation for designers to produce custom-made fashion items. The designers make clothes when they receive customers’ orders; they don’t need to keep stock.

John Leung
John Leung / Senior Research Manager / Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel
 
 
  • Dated posted: 17 June 2022
  • Last modified: 17 June 2022