By guest author Rachel Cernansky from Vogue Business
Recycled plastic waste is working its way into brands’ sustainable collections, but experts say there need to be better options.
- Brands like Rothy’s and Patagonia sell products made from recycled fabrics, which are almost entirely made of plastic waste.
- A growing cohort of industry players believe long-term sustainability is more achievable if recycled products were made from upcycled fabrics.
- Stella McCartney and Levi’s have used recycled textiles in proof-of-concept products, but more brand buy-in is necessary to increase availability of the materials for mainstream use.
Polyester made from melted-down plastic — used water bottles, ocean debris — has a much lower carbon footprint than virgin polyester, and it can help keep waste out of landfills and oceans. Brands including Patagonia, Adidas and Rothy’s use recycled plastic in their products, which are then marketed as more sustainable clothing choices.
But it’s a plaster fix for a problem that requires longer-term solutions, say a growing number of sustainability experts.
Recycling used textiles into other textiles would carve a more direct path to the still-elusive concept of a circular economy. But, it is a different process than plastic-to-polyester recycling, requiring technological innovation and in some cases new manufacturing practices. A number of companies, including Evrnu, Natural Fibre Welding, Worn Again Technologies and Tyton Biosciences, are at various stages both in scaling their capacity and in partnering with brands to make fabric recycling a possibility.
These companies each specialise in different capacities — recycling cotton, for example, or separating apparel’s ubiquitous cotton-polyester blend — but their end results can be recycled again and again. They may also be strong enough to stand alone, rather than require blending with virgin materials. The recycled polyesters of today, popular among brands trying to reduce their environmental footprint, can do neither. It’s a longevity play as fashion looks to reduce its environmental impact.
“We’re taking everything full circle,” says Christopher Stanev, co-founder and president of textile innovations company Evrnu. “Most of the systems today, including when you donate your garments, you’re not fixing a problem. You’re just creating a delay of the end of life of the garment before they end up in the landfill or the incinerator.”
The problem with plastic
The main difference between plastic-to-textile and textile-to-textile recycling comes down to process. Most materials today are recycled mechanically, without having their chemical structure changed. That reduces the quality over time in plastics and textiles alike as fibres get shorter or the material weaker in the process.
Chemical recycling, however, breaks plastics down into their chemical building blocks, which can then be used to make a different material or more of the same material without compromising on quality.
Evrnu is the startup behind NuCycl, a technology for chemically recycling a range of fabrics including cotton and polyester. Stanev says Evrnu’s process retains the quality of the original material, and in some cases, can improve it.
Evrnu collaborated with Adidas and Stella McCartney last year on a hoodie and with Levi’s in 2016 on a pair of jeans made from discarded T-shirts. These were both proofs of concept — NuCycl hasn’t reached the commercial market yet. Stanev says Evrnu is in discussions with Levi’s, Stella McCartney, Adidas, Target and more than 60 other brands to develop products, but he wouldn’t give a timeline for when they can be expected to launch. He says Evrnu’s goal is to recycle one million tonnes of post-consumer fabric per year, but it will need brand buy-in: the company plans to scale by licensing its technology for suppliers to implement.
The market opportunity
Its cotton technology is ready for commercialisation, but the opportunity and demand exceed any one material; Evrnu has technologies in development to recycle seven different types or compositions of fabric. Tyton Biosciences, a Virginia-based start-up, separates cotton from polyester while preserving both materials for recycling into future fabrics, a function that has eluded most others.
While the polyester can be turned right back into polyester, Tyton recycles cotton into a substitute for tree-based fibres like viscose and modal, which are associated with rampant deforestation globally. Some production efforts operate more sustainably than others, and the issue is gaining ground; in Davos, environmental group Canopy announced an action plan to replace half of the forest fibre used to make pulp for textiles and paper packaging with alternatives such as agricultural residues and waste cotton.
“Our goal is to keep natural resources in nature, and we want to do that by, instead of using natural resources for making clothing, using end-of-life textiles,” says Tyton president and co-founder Peter Majeranowski.
He says all sectors of the fashion industry, from sportswear to luxury, have expressed interest in Tyton’s technology. It’s too early for him to name specific brands that could be looking to adopt it — though Patagonia is a likely one, as its investment arm led Tyton’s Series A round — but Karla Mora, founder of Alante Capital, says the strong industry demand was key in her firm’s decision to invest in Tyton.
“Even more than things like cleaner chemistries and dyes, it seemed like the industry wanted recycled fibres. They can tell that story, they can get that through the various levels of approval,” she says. “That’s what the companies wanted. The market appetite was there. It was big.”
The market opportunity could increase competition, a positive in Mora’s view — fashion needs massive investment increases to scale more of the technologies that will help the industry reduce its impacts.
“We need a lot of these companies to succeed for this innovation in the sustainable space to happen,” she says. If they fail, the cost could be that investors get scared off of making future bets. “Their success helps drive the success of the entire space. There’s that much need right now. It’s definitely not a zero-sum game.”
Evrnu and Tyton don’t cover all the roadblocks to the industry recycling the vast streams of used and excess fabrics currently discarded as waste. Cotton, for instance, is delicate and harder to recycle back into cotton. Natural Fibre Welding specialises in preserving or restoring the integrity of cotton fibres, which diminishes during recycling.
To turn some of these recycling practices into a reality for the industry, though, requires not just the technological capacity but an infrastructural shift. Natural Fibre Welding founder and CEO Luke Haverhals envisions the textile mill of the future will be one part recycling centre, one part traditional mill. “We view ourselves as the recycling centre,” he says.
Textile collection — just getting the used fabrics to these recycling centres — remains a problem. Majeranowski of Tyton foresees a day when municipal recycling systems could take clothing just like any other recyclable, and get it to where it needs to be. That’s a long way off. Composition can also raise issues: fabrics claiming to be 100 per cent cotton may actually have other materials mixed in. Evrnu and Tyton have created processes to identify what a garment is made of — but it would be easier, moving forward, if that were not an issue at all.
Brands are making individual progress. Finnish label Marimekko last month released prototype garments with fibres from the Finnish company Spinnova, which makes cellulose-based textile fibres. The company uses virgin wood — Forest Stewardship Council-certified — as its primary material, but CEO Janne Poranen says they can recycle their fibres “again and again”. He couldn’t say whether or how Marimekko or Spinnova would build a take-back programme — the prototype is just a first step, but it shows Spinnova was able to produce the quality that the designer requires for its signature prints.
Majeranowski of Tyton is optimistic about the culmination of these efforts. “In an ideal world — and I think this is where the industry’s heading — we’ll be designing clothing for circularity.”