Edwin Keh (centre back) and the engineering team in Japan in front of the industrial scale hydro-thermal yarn separation system

Edwin Keh (centre back) and the engineering team in Japan in front of the industrial scale hydro-thermal yarn separation system

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Hong Kong's once powerhouse textiles and apparel sector might be shrinking, but that doesn't mean it's losing its significance. Far from it. A number of new projects being unveiled in September – and revealed exclusively on just-style – include the first mill being set up in the territory in more than half a century to produce recycled yarn from post-consumer apparel.

There's no doubt Hong Kong's textile and apparel industry is the master of reinvention.

Synonymous with the sector for decades, the Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China has transformed from a low cost manufacturing base into a vibrant sourcing hub.

And the next step is seeing it take shape as the centre of gravity for the industry's latest innovations around recycling and circularity – with help from visionaries such as Edwin Keh, the charismatic CEO at the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) for the past five years.

A whistle-stop tour of Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories shows why. There's a recycled yarn mill – the first mill to be set up in Hong Kong in 50 years; a 'hydro-thermal' blended fibre separation process being scaled up to an industrial level; and a new space that will demonstrate to consumers the entire garment to garment recycling loop.

All are just some of the 70 or so projects currently underway at HKRITA, with 21 new projects signed this year alone and partnered by industry leaders including H&M Foundation, Patagonia, Esquel, TAL and Singtex.

"It's going to be a busy year," concedes Keh, a former COO of Wal-Mart Global Procurement, who also lectures on global supply chain operations, sustainability, and decision making frameworks at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in the US. But he also points out: "We have more project proposals than we can take on, so we're fortunate we can cherry-pick."

"The whole way of working in the apparel and fashion industries is chasing the cheapest needle, chasing cheap labour and chasing cheap countries. We want to create value by focusing on the innovation part of the supply chain"

Explaining some of the goals for those research projects that do make the cut, he says: "The whole way of working in the apparel and fashion industries is chasing the cheapest needle, chasing cheap labour and chasing cheap countries.

"We want to create value by focusing on the innovation part of the supply chain – for manufacturers we want to show them new ways to create excitement, new business models; and for customers to think of them as a resource for something different.

"For the government we've tried to answer the question 'Where does Hong Kong fit in?' – and to help reposition and repurpose Hong Kong as a source of innovation around sustainability and business models and where fun things are happening.

"If we have these larger goals they will cascade down into new pragmatic projects we can sink our teeth into and have impact and purpose.

"You can't accuse us of not being ambitious. Some is a little bit risky, but it touches all the way along the supply chain from manufacturing to the consumer."

Recycled yarn mill

The new yarn mill is a case in point. Part of a wider project with the non-profit H&M Foundation – which is one of its biggest backers, along with the Innovation and Technology Fund of the Hong Kong Government – the facility will eventually produce around 3 tons of recycled yarn a day from post-consumer apparel.

This will be blended with 20-40% virgin material to give a daily output of up to 4-5 tons of yarn that "will perform as good as virgin and cost less than virgin."

Located in a refurbished building on the Tai Po Industrial Estate in the New Territories, the first production line, with a daily capacity of about one ton of material, is currently being installed, with the first test run due in early August.  

"This is one of three lines that we are putting into the factory...the second and third production lines will be in September and October," Keh explains.

"While this is being tested, we are also putting together the front end of the factory which processes the incoming materials." This includes dry sterilisation of the post-consumer clothes using ozone and ultraviolet (UV) radiation (which means there will be no waste water or pollutants); cleaning of the material; removal of all buttons, zips and trims; a robotic system to sort the materials by colour; and an automated warehousing system for processed materials.  

Once processed, the clothes will be cut and shredded and turned into a marled yarn that will be bundled into colour families before its content is analysed.

"Statistically, 50% of everything that comes in will be polyester, 30-40% cotton, and the rest wool," Keh says. The recycled yarns will be blended with virgin material to meet customers' chief content and colour requirements – but because it is just fibre-to-fibre recycling, output will have to be exported to China for manufacturing into garments.

The project tackles one of the biggest challenges in closed loop recycling of post-consumer apparel: namely how to recycle textiles made from mixed or unknown fibres, or yarn that is soiled or damaged.

"We want to address the worst and most challenging end of recycling, and will process everything and make new yarns out of it."

Another part of the experiment "is to see if we can operate this whole facility with maybe six associates as opposed to a traditional sortation facility or mill where you would expect hundreds of workers."

The initiative also goes some small way to finding a solution to the over 200 tons of apparel waste produced in Hong Kong each day, which is either discarded in landfill, or downcycled into insulation, carpeting, and other low value applications.

"If we can create a factory in a crowded city like Hong Kong to locally solve our recycling problem then no municipality in the world will have an excuse not to do it"

"We want the mill to demonstrate industrial scale in action – and if we can create a factory in a crowded city like Hong Kong to locally solve our recycling problem then no municipality in the world will have an excuse not to do it."

Early signs suggest massive demand for the inventory. "Every brand is asking for some green solutions and some sustainable solutions – so the time is right. We are working with some manufacturers already, and they know they have customers for this stuff."

Hydro-thermal fibre separation system

The mill will initially use traditional mechanical systems operated by yarn spinner Novetex (part of Hong Kong based Novel Group), but the facility will also provide a testing ground for new hydro-thermal and biological systems to separate and recycle blended fibres.

And not surprisingly, this taps into another project being overseen by HKRITA.

Most apparel and textile products are made from fabrics featuring a blend of different fibres – yet there are no commercially viable technologies to separate, and then recycle, the individual components.

"We wanted to find a way of self-separating. Using hydro-thermal processing (a combination of heat and pressure) we have been able to fully separate cotton and polyester fibres from mixed yarns.

"The recovered polyester material comes out in fibre form, so you can just finish it and turn it back into fibre without any loss of quality. The cotton comes out in powder form, and while this is super-absorbent and can be used in products like diapers, we want to see if we can produce a new high-performance cotton out of it, for example, with a different core."

The hydrothermal process developed in partnership with a research team in Japan is eco-friendly in that it uses only heat, water and less than 5% biodegradable green chemical to separate the fibres. It also claims a recovery rate of over 98% for polyester fibres in 0.5-2 hours, without loss of quality – paving the way for fibre-to-fibre recycling.

"The next stage is to remove the dyestuffs without using chemicals. We have had early success in recolouring and are still working to test spinnability, but believe we are further along than anyone else in getting something realistic to market," Keh says. He adds that the latest modification to the system is to remove the colour at the same time the fibres are being separated.

"Until now, post-recycled fibres only have a finite life...Theoretically we now have an infinite loop, and can use the fibres over and over again"

Until now, post-recycled fibres only have a finite life, so "the goal is for no deterioration in the performance of the outcomes. Theoretically we now have an infinite loop, and can use the fibres over and over again...so we are very excited."

The hydro-thermal system is edging towards commercialisation, with industrial-scale testing currently underway in Japan. It will then be dismantled and shipped to the Tai Po factory in Hong Kong.

"We will be test running the system in August and in full run by September. Even as we are finishing the first system, we are already making design plans to build improvements."

Industrial scale

At the same time as all of this is going on, HKRITA is consolidating two of its laboratories at the Hong Kong Science and Technology Park into one larger unit.

Here "we will finally have all of our hydro-thermal systems in one place" creating a small industrial scale chamber with an output of "a couple of hundred pounds per day."

Originally set up to advance development in sectors such as robotics, electronics, artificial intelligence and biotech, apparel is a late addition to the Science and Technology Park, but has been welcomed "as we are closer to market than other sectors so can quickly commercialise."

As well as the hydro-thermal processing, another key project that will be based here is biological recycling, using fermentation and enzymes to break down fabric and separate it into its component materials materials. A similar process was pioneered by HKRITA two years ago to turn starchy food waste into polyester.

The new technologies are being developed as part of a four-year Closed-Loop Apparel Recycling Eco-System Program with the H&M Foundation, which is backed by EUR5.8m (US$6.5m) in funding.

Work is also underway on supercritical CO2 waterless dyeing (or dry dyeing) technologies, in conjunction with outdoor clothing brand Patagonia, manufacturers Esquel and TAL, Taiwanese functional fabric specialist Singtex, and Toyota engineering.

Instead of water, the process uses carbon dioxide that is pressurised until it becomes "supercritical" – a phase between a liquid and a gas – enabling the dye to dissolve and be transported deep into the fibres. However, not only is this very expensive, but it only works on polyester, and there are "issues with capacity, colours etc," according to Keh.

"We are addressing these challenges, and also want to make it affordable. We are building a 500 litre system for supercritical dyeing at a fraction of the cost, and have been successful using this machine to dye natural fibres."

The Mills development

As if Keh and his team didn't already have their hands full, HKRITA is helping curate some of the content at The Mills, a HK$700 million-plus redevelopment of three former Nan Fung cotton mills in Tsuen Wan.

Due to open later this year, the creative hub will feature an art gallery, a textile industry museum, shops and restaurants, events and meeting places – as well as a fashion and wearables startup incubator and maker space that HKRITA will be running.

Focusing on cutting-edge technologies, including 3D printing, knitting, and digital printing, the incubator will offer training for startups, as well as technical symposiums and events. The working space will accommodate 12 startups and 50 people at any one time.

"I have been working with startups for around a year and find them very exciting; there's a lot of innovation because they don't know what's impossible," says Keh, adding: "We can wait for things to come around, or we can jump on opportunities as they come along.

"We want to work with really high potential startups, and have found many even in early rounds of funding have high probability of survival."

In another part of the development is the 'Shopfloor' retail zone where, alongside 50 shops including local fashion brands and designers, HKRITA is setting up a unit to demonstrate the entire 'Garment to Garment' recycling process.

Crammed into an area of just 40 square feet will be specially designed and fabricated machinery and equipment – essentially made smaller, faster and quieter – to directly recycle and make new apparel from old consumer supplied cast-offs.

HK Fashion Summit

All of these projects are due to open in September and will be centre stage at the upcoming 'Fashion Summit (HK) 2018,' a two-day event bringing together key players from the global fashion industry along with leading academics and NGOs to discuss the latest technology, best practice, solutions and opportunities in sustainable fashion. Taking place from 6-7 September 2018 at Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, the theme of this year's Fashion Summit is 'Circular Economy.'

The second day will be given over to HKRITA's annual Innovation and Technology Symposium, where the focus will be on 'The Re-imagination of Our Industry – Building on Our Heritage for Tomorrow's Breakthroughs.' Here panel discussions on 'Closing the Loop,' 'Smart Technology for Future Manufacturing' and 'Fashion Future – Innovative Start ups' will feature speakers from Esquel, H&M, Lane Crawford, KTC, Bluesign and Cradle to Cradle.

HKRITA Factsheet
The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) was established in 2006, and is funded from the Innovation and Technology Commission of the HKSAR Government. As a wholly owned subsidiary of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, where the team is based, it also has access to a wide range of equipment for spinning weaving, wet processing, dyeing, spinning and knitting.

With a brief to identify, invent, innovate, and create new solutions "that make our industries better and benefit our society," one-third of projects are carried out in-house, while the rest take over or collaborate with other projects around the world. Recent projects include a climate chamber to quantify comfort of apparel systems; a new spinning method for producing high-quality yak yarns and fabrics; an insole that can sense the foot strike pattern of runners; a new treatment to improve leather recovery performance; and a robotic spraying system to create worn effects on jeans.