Renewcell bases its solution on the Swedish forest industry and cutting-edge research, and it already has customers lining up for when the company starts producing recycled textiles in a repurposed paper mill this summer.
Until the closure in 2020, Ortviken was one of Sweden’s and Europe’s largest manufacturers of newsprint. The PM5 machine was inaugurated in 1985 and had a capacity of 255,000 tonnes of paper per year. But digitalization soon hit the newspaper branch, forcing the parent company SCA to close PM5 and dismiss seven hundred employees.
Just a few months later, another Swedish company stepped in, Renewcell.
When the event is summarized on SCA’s site, the power of the transition to a society where printed newspapers are passé and the textile industry is under pressure by demands for sustainability becomes crystal clear – with new innovations as a result: “PM5 will now be dismantled to make way for the company Renewcell’s recycling of textile fiber, which is expected to start up at Ortviken’s industrial site in 2022.”
The paper machine was demolished in the autumn of 2021 and during the beginning of 2022 all new equipment was delivered and installed. By the summer, the facility will be up and running.
As early as 2018, Renewcell opened a small factory for recycling primarily cotton garments in the town of Kristinehamn. However, the new facility in Ortviken will be many times larger. According to Patrik Lundström, CEO of Renewcell, demand is increasing so fast that the plans for future expansion must be constantly adjusted:
“We already have contracts for 40,000 tonnes. But much more is underway, so we have decided to expand from the previously planned 60,000 tonnes in production to 120,000 tonnes.”
H&M is both co-owner and customer, and important customers include Levi’s and Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein’s parent company PVH.
Innovation from a technical university
It all started with cutting-edge research at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm when professors Gunnar Henriksson and Mikael Lindström discovered a new way to break down cellulose. At first, the aim was to produce ethanol from forest raw materials, but soon they realized that the process could also be used to break down and recycle apparel.
But it takes time before research and innovation becomes a product on a world market. In 2012, the company Renewcell was started. Two years later, a fashion show gained a lot of attention where the catwalk model wore a yellow dress made of Circulose, where the raw material was jeans recycled using the company’s patented method. Now, ten years after its beginnings, production on an industrial scale will commence.
But it is also in recent years that sustainability issues have become the highest priority among textile companies.
As Patrik Lindström puts it, Renewcell is just in time:
“Growing cotton, running the cotton through the value chain once and then burning up the fabric. We can’t do this anymore. It’s crazy.”
Recycling over and over again
The old paper mill and the new textile factory have more in common than people might think, as both revolve around cellulose.
“We reuse cellulose-based clothing and make cellulose pulp from it, which can be used to make textile fibers such as viscose. And we can do that over and over again. In the lab, we have seen that the material can be recycled up to seven times. Maybe more.”
Furthermore, Patrik Lundström believes that many sustainability initiatives in the textile industry only reach halfway. For example, when making fabric from recycled polyester.
“In principle, they have taken a pet bottle and made a fleece sweater out of it. You can recycle a pet bottle many times, but not if you have made it into a sweater because the fabric is then dyed. It would be much better to let the pet bottles spin further in their own cycles,” he says.
The forest and paper industry have been vital components of the Swedish business community for generations. Against this background, Renewcell’s business concept is particularly interesting. The investment is largely a consequence of the knowledge that exists in the forest industry.
“We built the company on traditional knowledge of pulp production in Sweden. Despite the fact that Swedish companies are successful in IT, for example, one of our foundations is still the forest and pulp industry,” says Patrik Lundström.
He points out that researchers Gunnar Henriksson and Mikael Lindström are some of the world’s foremost in their field. But also, that those who work on the floor in the pulp industry are “world class.”
“Learning to run a pulp mill requires years of working in production, a theoretical education is not enough.”
The choice of Kristinehamn for the establishment of the first facility was easy given the proximity to Paper Province, a business cluster in the forest industry in the Värmland region in West Sweden. And in Ortviken, the company takes advantage of the old infrastructure on the site, such as buildings, water treatment, electricity supply and more.
In addition, Renewcell had the privilege of employing seventy of the people who were laid off when SCA closed its facility. This way, know-how and competence are also recycled.
“It is very difficult to acquire an understanding of these processes. But these men and women understand them immediately,” concludes Patrik Lundström.
From Cellulose to Circulose
Cellulose is a molecule, consisting of hundreds of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. It is the main substance in the walls of plant cells, helping plants to remain stiff and upright. It is also the main ingredient in paper as well as in cotton.
- Renewcell receives 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 then dried to produce sheets of Circulose, Renewcell’s patented material.
- These sheets are packaged into bales and fed back into the textile production value chain as a biobased equal-quality replacement for virgin materials.
Photos: Alexander Donka