‘Clothes-Minded’ with Edwin Keh and Erik Bang

Sara Weir


Whittier College hosted technological innovators Edwin Keh and Erik Bang this Monday for a conversation with a group of invited students about their latest work in clothing recycling. Their project, which involves the development of the first method for recycling clothing made with blended fabrics, will be the feature of a documentary that Whittier College will be producing.

“This breakthrough on separation and recycling of textile blends has the potential to change the whole fashion industry,” says Bang on the H&M Foundation website. Bang is Innovation Lead at the Foundation, which is a global non-profit that is funded by the founders and owners of H&M. This technological breakthrough — which was made just last year — is the result of a partnership between the H&M Foundation, Ehime University in Japan, and the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel, of which Keh is CEO. 

These partners worked together in the development of a hydrothermal process to separate cotton and polyester in blended fabrics in order to recycle them. Currently, only clothing made from one material is capable of being recycled. Yet, most clothes today are a blend of materials, with the most common blend being cotton and polyester, according to the Foundation’s website. As Keh explained in the conversation on campus, the method that is being developed seeks to solve this issue as well as other issues, such as decreased quality in recycled materials — all while remaining cost-effective and pollution-free. 

“Today, most recycling is mechanical,” said Keh. However, the new method that has been developed is chemical. It involves heat, water, pressure, and biodegradable chemicals such as enzymes. These enzymes affect organic materials but not synthetic materials, allowing them to separate. 

While the technology for the method has been successfully developed, Keh and Bang both admitted that they do not yet know if it will work in the long run. It still has a long way to go before it is finalized, but the goal is to have the method ready and available to the whole fashion industry by 2020. 

As they work to finalize the method, Keh and Bang will be taking on the project of renovating a textile mill in Hong Kong. They will also be building an industrial-sized recycling plant just outside the city. This is the project Whittier College will be filming in a documentary. The production of the documentary is being arranged by Assistant Professor of Theater John Bak, and will be led by filmmaker and producer Joanna Bowers. Bowers wrote and directed her own documentary, The Helper. As explained on the film’s website, helperdocumentary.com, The Helper chronicles the sacrifices made by migrant domestic workers who leave their families to work in Hong Kong. 

For this upcoming documentary, Professor Bak says Bowers will be working with faculty and students of the College to produce one 60-minute documentary as well as several five-minute pieces. These shorter videos will discuss additional related topics and promote the documentary itself. 

One of the questions brought up in Monday’s conversation was, ‘how do we spread the word about the documentary and make sure its message heard?’ “It’s a lot easier to reinvent technology than [to reinvent] human behavior,” said Keh. Bang agreed, saying that there must be a purpose behind the development of new technology. One way that they hope to encourage changes in consumer behavior is to make a simple method of clothing recycling accessible to the public. 

Part of the construction that Bang and Keh will be doing in Hong Kong will be focused on attempting to create a 40-foot clothing recycling machine to place inside the renovated textile mill. To use the machine, you would feed used clothes in at one end and receive the separated and recycled materials out the other end. The idea behind this machine is that, if it is compact enough to fit in a crowded urban location such as Hong Kong, then they should be able to place one in any city. Thus, the completion of this machine could mean that we would be able to take our used clothing to a local center, perhaps like the ones next to grocery stores, and have it recycled right there. 

In the meantime, consumers such as ourselves can take advantage of clothing recycling programs like the one H&M offers. The program is outlined and explained on about hm.com: H&M stores around the world accept clothes and textiles “no matter brand or condition” to be either resold as second-hand clothes, reused for items such as cleaning cloths, or recycled for their textile fibers. The profit made is then given to the H&M foundation and divided among projects like Keh’s and Bang’s, and many others.  

The success and development of this new process is exciting in the face of an ever-increasing global population combined with the reality of limited global resources. As quoted on the H&M foundation’s website, Keh says, “By upcycling used textiles into new textiles, we no longer need to rely on virgin materials to dress a growing world population. It’s a breakthrough in the pursuit of a fashion industry operating within the planetary boundaries.”