Clothes that fight climate change: Researchers test aprons that capture CO2 from air

Researchers are testing a potential "game-changer" when it comes to fighting global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions: carbon-capturing clothing.

A team of scientists, backed by H&M’s nonprofit, have launched a project in which cotton garments are treated with a solution that allows the clothing to capture CO2 from the air and then release it as nutrition for plants. 

The researchers are testing the project in the form of cotton aprons worn by staff at a restaurant in Stockholm, Sweden.

CO2 is one of the main greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere and warm the planet. The fashion industry produces between 2% to 8% of global carbon emissions, according to the United Nations Environment Programme — while other more recent figures have estimated 8%-10%

Heightened demand from consumers for more sustainable practices has prompted the fashion industry to take interest and accelerate change. This latest innovation, officially called the Carbon Looper project, was developed by researchers at the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) and the H&M Foundation, funded by the founders and owners of the massive clothing company H&M.

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Pictured L to R: Christiane Dolva, Strategy Lead Planet Positive H&M Foundation, Martin Wall, Executive Chef Fotografiska, Edwin Keh, CEO HKRITA. Clothing that absorbs CO2 from the air and then releases it as nutrition for plants is now being tested by the restaurant staff at Fotografiska Stockholm. (Credit: Daniel Tobar, Fotografiska)

"We want to find new solutions that can enable the fashion industry to become planet positive," Christiane Dolva, strategy lead at H&M Foundation, said in a statement, noting how "change needs to happen now."

The foundation believes the carbon-looping solution has the potential to start "a paradigm shift in how we think about textiles and the fashion industry."

How the carbon-capturing clothing works

The cotton garments are treated with an amine-containing solution that makes the surface of the fabric capture carbon dioxide from the surrounding air, researchers said.

CO2 can be released from the fabric by being heated to 30 to 40 degrees Celsius (86 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit). This could be in a greenhouse, for example, where the CO2 can naturally be taken up by the plants during photosynthesis. 

The restaurant where the project is being tested, called Fotografiska, has a hydroponic garden in the basement — where plants are used in some of the dishes. 

The amount of CO2 that’s captured by one of these garments per day is approximately equivalent to a third of the amount that a tree absorbs per day, researchers said. 

"After only three ‘loop-cycles,’ the garment has effectively climate-neutralized itself – and instead starts to have a climate positive effect," the foundation said. 

Since not everyone has access to a greenhouse, the researchers are also working to improve and scale up the technology to be more widely used, including how consumers might be able to have a more user-friendly way to repurpose the CO2 that their clothes capture.

This story was reported from Cincinnati.