Chemical recycling of textiles advances, shakily – Chemical & Engineering News

Polyester fibers being woven.

Credit: Syre

Syre plans annual production of over 3 million metric tons of recycled polyester from 12 plants by 2034.

These are topsy-turvy times for the nascent textile recycling industry. The clothing behemoth H&M Group has cofounded a textile recycling firm that promises to become a huge global producer just as H&M’s former textile recycling partner, Renewcell, goes bankrupt. Meanwhile, the Finnish textile recycling start-up Infinited Fiber has raised $44 million.

H&M, the venture capital firm Vargas Holding, and the private equity firm TPG Rise Climate have formed Syre, which will undertake the textile-to-textile recycling of polyester fibers at industrial scale. The three founders have made a total initial investment of about $60 million in Syre to fund the construction of its first plant, which is slated to open later this year in North Carolina.

Headquartered in Stockholm, Syre plans to have 12 plants worldwide by 2034 that will produce a total of over 3 million metric tons (t) per year of polyester fiber. H&M has agreed to buy polyester produced by Syre for 7 years at a total cost of $600 million. The agreement covers a significant share of H&M’s long-term need for recycled polyester, which it sources today primarily from recycled bottles. H&M’s goal is to source 30% of its material from textile waste by 2025 and 50% by 2030.

“Syre marks the start of the great textile shift,” CEO Dennis Nobelius says in a press release. “By implementing true textile-to-textile recycling at hyperscale, we want to drive the transition from a linear to a circular value chain by putting textile waste to use, over and over again.”

Syre’s technology uses ethylene glycol to break down polyester into monomers. The firm then reuses the monomers to form new polyester fibers. The firm says the quality of its fibers will be on par with that of virgin polyester and that it may expand its business into other fibers and technologies.

About 60 million t per year of polyester fibers are currently made from fossil fuels, Syre says. The firm claims that the carbon dioxide footprint of its recycled polyester fiber will be 85% lower than that of virgin polyester and that by 2032 its technology will abate more than 15 million t of CO2 emissions annually.

Reaching this lofty goal won’t be easy, outside observers say. “Based on our analysis, polyester polymers, resins and fibers are one of the ‘sweet spots’ for sustainability investments in the chemical industry,” Bernd Elser, global chemical lead for the consulting firm Accenture, says in an email. “Indeed, we see a lot of activity in that space. However, despite a suitable chemistry, polyesters face the same challenge as many other sustainability-related ventures in the chemical industry, namely bringing together a high-volume, cost-competitive feedstock supply, value chain partnerships, offtake agreements, proprietary knowledge and a leading cost position. Often, it is not enough to fulfill just a few of these requirements; all must be in place for an economically viable new business,” he says.

Economic viability has evaded the Swedish textile recycling pioneer Renewcell, which has declared bankruptcy. Among other deals, it formed a multiyear partnership in 2020 to supply H&M with Circulose, a fiber made from recycled cellulosic materials such as cotton. Renewcell had been ramping up production at a $130 million, 60,000-metric-ton-per-year plant. According to the company’s third-quarter 2023 financial report, product delivered to customers fell dramatically in October.

Separately, the Finnish textile recycling firm Infinited Fiber has raised $44 million in funding from investors, including H&M and the parent company of the clothing retailer Zara. Infinited has developed a process—similar to that used for making viscose—for recycling cotton and other cellulosic textiles into a new fiber called Infinna.

The latest funding round makes H&M one of Infinited’s largest investors. “This investment is crucial for further advancing the scale-up of Infinna, and it underscores the industry’s confidence in our technology as one of the key enablers for circularity in the textile sector,” Infinited CEO Petri Alava says in a press release.

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