A yarn mill in Tai Po dedicated to upcycling textile waste hopes to keep textiles out of landfill
As global consumption of fast fashion continues to increase, so too does the pressure on landfills: in Hong Kong, for example more than 340 tonnes of textile waste are dumped into landfills daily according to the Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department.
One company committed to tackling this global problem in Hong Kong is textiles firm Novetex, which recently set up the Billie System, a yarn mill dedicated to upcycling textiles, explains its chairman Ronna Chao.
Chao is the third-generation leader in the family business of Novetex, and says each generation implemented initiatives that were ground-breaking and reflected the market at the time. “My grandfather and father made new types of yarns by using unusual combinations of raw materials; my late brother Ron laid the groundwork for this movement by investigating our supply chain and confronting our environmental impact. This attitude of innovation means forging our own paths instead of merely reacting to change.”
About two years ago, the company began investing in research and development and partnered with the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) to develop a system that can upcycle the waste from our own manufacturing processes.
“As part of our commitment to sustainability, we wanted to start where we could make the most impact. Novetex’s origins are in Hong Kong and we were keen to find a solution to managing the textile waste created in our city. Simultaneously, demand for sustainable fashion has risen in the past decade, and many brands want to introduce more sustainable fibres in their products,” says Chao.
The Billie System was initially developed to address the textile waste resulting from its own manufacturing processes, and Chao says it is “very happy” that what it has developed for is something that can tackle the problem on a larger scale. While many other textile recycling processes require high volumes of chemicals and water, The Billie System doesn’t use any water or emit hazardous discharge, Chao adds.
There are six key steps to upcycling the textile waste. First, textile waste sanitisation, in which garments are disinfected through an ozone sanitisation system. That is followed by hardware removal, the manual removal of non-fibre objects such as buttons and zippers. The next step is automatic colour sorting during which trimmed fabrics are sorted into nine colour ranges. Colour-sorted swatches are then transferred by an automated guided vehicle for fibre processing, two stages of UV light sanitisation, and finally, the recycled fibres undergo sliver processing.
Chao said it has received a lot of positive comments regarding the quality of its yarn. “People are quite surprised to find the hand-feel of garments made with upcycled yarn is comparable to those made of virgin fibres,” she says.
While many view textile waste as clothing, she says there is a large proportion of waste from industrial textiles, too. One of the companies it is working with is Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels, which has piloted upcycling their bed linens with Novetex. One of its branded apparel customers, meanwhile, will be debuting a campaign towards the end of the year. Novetex hopes to collaborate with everyone from luxury brands to NGOs to grow its scale of impact in the future.
Asked what will happen to the upcycled waste, Chao says it would ideally like to work with brands in a closed-loop economy with support from the Novetex Zhuhai facilities, where brands would use their own textile waste to create new yarns, fabrics, and even clothing lines.
“We are also communicating with different NGOs and other industries in collecting different kinds of textile waste, such as old home textiles and uniforms. For upcycled fibres sourced from the latter, we are working towards building up stock where clients can purchase upcycled yarn from the Billie System.”
Effecting meaningful change on the problem of textile waste requires more than a few initiatives, believes Chao. “There is definitely more that can be done and we need the cooperation of various stakeholders, including the government, as well as brands, manufacturers and consumers.”
While there is still much to be done, Chao is nevertheless hopeful about the future of sustainable fashion, given that an increasing number of consumers are expressing a desire for more sustainable products and processes that brands are responding to. “The next generation gives me hope because they are far more aware of, and concerned about, sustainability issues and other problems that affect our planet.”
Expanding The Billie’s capacity is very much part of Novetex’s vision. “For now, the system’s three production lines can process up to three tonnes of textile waste every day, but we continue to study how we can add more production lines or recreate The Billie in another location. We also seek to promote a wider recycling movement, and support our clients in the practice of a circular economy.”