Green is the New Black in Hong Kong
Decades of know-how from two key Hong Kong industries – research and textiles – are in the spotlight, thanks to new technologies developed to keep luxurious natural fabrics looking their best, and another that provides sustainable synthetics
The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA), together with the Hong Kong Productivity Council, developed the award-winning innovations, which could see significant improvements in the textile manufacturing process. The collaboration is part of efforts to develop new intellectual property in textile innovation, while targeting the broader issue of sustainability.
The first innovation is an anti-pilling plasma treatment to reduce unsightly pills on wool and cashmere. Pills are formed by tangles of loose fibres protruding from the fabric’s surface. As the fabrics are worn and washed, the loose fibres develop into tiny balls of fluff hooked into the fabric. The institute’s plasma technology modifies the surface structure of a garment’s fibres, reducing friction between the fibres and the frequency of pills.
The second project the institute has developed involves using waste material from other industrial processes to create low-cost, degradable additives to make polyester. The final additive is mixed with polyester resin to create biodegradable fibres that break down after prolonged exposure to air, and can be used in such products as hairnets and face masks.
“This technology introduces the oxo-biodegradation technique to the textile industry for the first time,” says Dr CC Lam, Principal Consultant to the Food, Polymer and Jewellery Application, Materials and Manufacturing Technology division of the Hong Kong Productivity Council.
“I believe that the uptake will be great as there are more and more degradable products entering the market. It will definitely enrich the custom choices of degradable products and have big potential to solve the waste disposal problem of synthetic fibres in the future.”
The new technique allows non-biodegradable polyester fibres to be rendered sustainable at a very low cost. The additives come from waste material of other industrial processes, including scrap metal residues and soap, which help ease Hong Kong’s waste management burden.
Scientists researching biodegradable polyesters drew inspiration from new and easier ways to handle industrial-scale volumes of waste and by-products. In 2013, the volume of synthetic fibres produced by the textile industry exceeded 54 million tonnes. Polyester accounts for about 82 per cent of all synthetic fibres, says Dr Lam.
“The disposal of synthetic fibres is a serious problem we must face, especially for polyester products,” he said. After more than two years’ experimentation and more than 150 tests, industry trials are now underway.
HKRITA CEO Edwin Keh said Hong Kong’s role in the manufacturing sector has been focusing on developing technological innovation.
“Last year, we identified three areas to focus our research: sustainability, anything that’s related to improving the competitiveness or the process, and technologies that improve society, be it through materials or systems, but anything that protects or improves the quality of life.”
The anti-pilling treatment certainly goes a long way to improving the process and sustainability of garment production. Pilling has been a longstanding problem in the apparel industry, especially in manufacturing high-end knitted fabrics. Reducing pilling by half, the new technique is pollution-free, involving no water or chemicals, and unlike existing anti-pilling treatments, does not affect the garment’s feel or appearance.
The technology was developed with manufacturers in mind, according to Dr Sam Mo, a Senior Consultant to the Materials and Manufacturing Technology Division of the Hong Kong Productivity Council.
“This system was originally developed for manufacturers as an environmentally friendly alternative to the conventional anti-pilling finishing processes,” he said.
“Therefore, the size and mode of operation of the system are designed to suit industrial production. As this system is easy to operate and requires no water and chemicals, it could definitely be applied on an individual basis, provided that the size of the system is scaled down.”
Both innovations have been recognised internationally, receiving gold medals at the International Exhibition of Inventions in Geneva last April. “We hope that we can help manufacturers in Hong Kong, China and overseas to produce low-cost disposal and degradable plastic products to create a better environment for our next generation.” said Dr Lam.
HKRITA will feature its innovations at the Business of IP Asia Forum, December 3 -4, 2015.