UK dye recycling startup recognised by the fashion industry while a demonstrator launches for textile circularity

Article by Amanda Jasi

Imperial College London
Developers of DyeRecycle's process Aida Rafat (left) and Jason Hallett (right) with their Global Change Award.

DYERECYCLE, a startup of Imperial College London, UK working to recover and reuse dyes in the fashion and textile industry, has received a €200,000 (US$223,415) grant as part of a Global Change Award given by the H&M Foundation. The award recognises the potential of the dye recycling company’s technology to transform the industry.

The news was followed by an announcement from the UK Fashion and Textile Association about a collaborative national project that will also contribute to circularity in fashion. It will advance automated sorting and pre-processing for waste-textiles to facilitate their reuse.

According to the World Economic Forum, the fashion industry produces 10% of anthropogenic emissions and is responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution, while also being the world’s second largest consumer of water resources.

The H&M Foundation has said that “as one of the largest industries in the world, the fashion industry needs to reinvent itself and produce fashion for a growing world population while operating within our planetary boundaries”.

A potential first

Conventional methods of fabric dyeing use immense amounts of water and risk the release of toxic dye chemicals into the environment as water leftover from the process is often dumped in ditches, streams, or rivers. DyeRecycle’s approach eliminates the need for water, which reduces the chance of water pollution, and builds recycling technology for the sector. The creators believe it is the first circular dye process.

Imperial College London

The technology uses ionic liquids to remove dyes from waste textiles, resulting in a colour bath of recovered dye that can then be used to treat new fabrics. The waste textile emerges from the process white, making it easier to recycle.

When DyeRecycle’s recovery process is employed, colour matching is achieved not through a particular formulation, but the selection of waste fabrics that the colour is stripped from.

James Hallett, co-developer of the process and professor of chemical engineering at Imperial further explained how colour matching is achieved.

He said: “Fashion designers want a particular [shade] of blue or green or orange that matches a colour palette, very much like the paint sample test strips you get in a shop to see which particular colour you want… What DyeRecycle has to do is mix textile waste inputs to match a particular colour, for example by adding some red waste to blue to make it indigo and then purple, but with a lot of fine tuning to get a specific ‘Pantone’.”

Hallett clarified that Pantone is the industry colour matching system.

He said that although DyeRecycle can achieve colour matching with any input, including sorted old clothes, the process works best with waste coming directly from clothing manufacturers such as offcuts or unsold garments, as they arrive in batches of the same colour and fabric. This makes partnerships with industry essential for the company.

Development plans

Currently, DyeRecycle is operating its technology at bench-scale in Imperial’s department of chemical engineering. But Aida Rafat, CEO of DyeRecycle, said that the company is close to a seed funding round, after which it will be able to conduct more product-market fit and pilot tests with different supply chain partners. This will allow the company to move from dyeing a couple of metres of fabric, to entire rolls that are enough to make into garments.

Rafat, who developed the technology and founded DyeRecycle alongside Hallett, said: “We are starting to launch some pilot projects with different brands, where they give us some of their waste and we transfer the dyes to a piece of white fabric, to show them what we can do.”

In 2024 or 2025, the company aims to produce a small-scale fashion collection in collaboration with an “adventurous, high-end brand”.

Speaking about the company’s development plans, Hallett said: “We don’t want to be disruptive in terms of equipment. Rather than having to launch a new process, we can just take over an existing dye house and, with a few modifications, run it as it is.”

The Nobel Prize of fashion

H&M Foundation’s Global Change Awards were initiated in 2015 to accelerate the shift from the standard linear model where clothes end up in landfill, to a circular model where materials are reused and recycled.

Commenting on DyeRecycle’s recognition, Rafat said: “Getting this award, which is considered the Nobel Prize of fashion, is evidence of a significant pull from the industry towards not only fibre circularity, but also chemical circularity.”

Winners of a Global Change Award (GCA) receive €200,000 each and gain yearlong access to the GCA Impact Accelerator. This allows recipients to receive tailored coaching and support from H&M Foundation and its industry partners, to accelerate their journey from idea to scale.

Hallett said: “Getting those links into the fashion industry is invaluable for us…We need to meet textiles companies and fashion brands that are interested in sustainability in order to push our product out into the market.”

Typically, H&M Foundation’s annual GCAs recognise five innovations with the potential to make fashion more “planet positive”. This year, to speed up transformation, the foundation doubled its total grant funding (to €2m) and the number of award recipients (to 10).

Other awardees this year included: Shelly Xu Design (SXD), a US company that is using a platform powered by artificial intelligence (AI) to achieve zero fabric waste designs, and Canada’s Alt Tex, which uses its patent-pending technology to make food waste into biodegradable fabric.

Christina Dolva, strategy lead for H&M Foundation, said: “There’s a wide range of solutions among this year’s winners. If scaled, I believe they could have a real impact on the industry – which needs a holistic transformation if we are to reach a planet positive fashion future. We look forward to working with the winners during the accelerator and help enable their innovations to accelerate and scale.”

Facilitating sorting

Also announced last month was a £4m collaborative project – ACT UK – which will develop and pilot a fully integrated, automated sorting and pre-processing demonstrator for waste textiles that could help divert thousands of tonnes of waste from landfill each year.

According to UK Fashion and Textile Association (UKFT), the country’s largest network for fashion and textile companies, more than 1m t of used textiles are generated each year, a third of which are non-rewearable textiles (NRT) that are lost to landfill/incineration or are exported for sorting in lower-cost labour regions.

UKFT notes that manual sorting is limited. It adds that it is not possible to sort garments by fibre composition “by eye”, and sizing steps and pre-processing (button, zip, and trim removal) required by textile recyclers haven’t been optimised to meet their individual specifications. Additionally, no scaled process currently brings all of these aspects together in a single industrial process or facility.

The Autosort for Circular Textiles Demonstrator (ACT UK) project will bring together key technology components including state-of-the-art optical scanning, robotics, AI, pre-processing, and size reduction equipment “under one roof”. The two-year project is expected to support a transition from uneconomic manual sorting of clothes and textiles not suitable for resale, to highly automated sorting and processing that will allow waste to be used as feedstock for existing and emerging recycling processes.

ACT UK is the first in a series of government-funded projects that will see UKFT collaborate with a wide range of industry partners from throughout the UK supply chain, to develop textile recycling infrastructure, circular fashion, and sustainable manufacturing.

Article by Amanda Jasi

Staff reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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