This article is part of our series "From mushroom to handbag: Creating a closed loop textile supply chain." Click here to view all articles in the series.
Instead of incinerating factory floor scraps, materials-science startup Circular Systems is reusing them to create new fabrics. Instead of burning flax and hemp stalks, Circular Systems is turning them into yarn. "We’re working in the global textile supply chain and global agriculture space to transform waste into valuable new materials," the company CEO Isaac Nichelson told Supply Chain Dive.
Clothing factories need better resource efficiency, as "20% of textiles going into the factory end up in the cutting room floor," said Nichelson. And some factories in Asia are producing up to 4 million garments per month.
The textile industry is looking for new ways to create new fibers. The fashion cycle is faster, with more seasons and turnover, and people are wearing the clothing fewer times, often throwing them out instead of recycling or reusing them.
"We can’t raise any more wool or cotton; it’s in competition for landfill and food," said Anke Domaske, founder of Qmilk, a German company making yarn out of spoiled milk. "We cannot raise production for polyester or other fibers. It’s not going to be enough. There are alternatives needed, and many new materials are coming to the market," she told Supply Chain Dive.
3 products, 3 ways to recycle
As a textile recycling platform, Circular Systems’ Texloop product uses fabric scraps to create new yarns and fabrics. It’s built on the idea of the lightest touch, using the least amount of energy to preserve them, Nichelson said. That means carrying forward the original fiber qualities, keeping cotton as cotton rather than melting it down into viscose.
They’re also focusing on mechanical and thermal synthetics recycling. Rather than taking the material back to the polymer stage and repolymerizing it, they retain the dye (which is a big pollutant), using the fabric threads as is. "The beauty is that these systems exist today," Nichelson said. "They’re not future state chemical recycling systems that are years away from commercial application and may or may not be a cost effective or lower impact choice."
The Los Angeles-based company is also working on Agraloop, a product that uses excess and waste fiber generated from farming. "Banana, pineapple, oilseed flax, oilseed hemp, can be converted into high value cottonized fiber” which is traditionally spun, he said.
The third product combines the other two endeavors, using food waste fibers and scrap fibers to spin what they call Orbital hybrid yarn. Recycled fibers "are generally perceived as lower value for textile applications." The concern is creating weaker yarns or aesthetic issues like pilling or bumps in the fabric, which can result from blending and using recycled cotton. Nichelson said that Orbital is a higher quality yarn that works well when blended. "That’s being marketed now into the global supply chain, and we’ll see uptake from major brands starting this fall and being rolled out in 2019."
Agraloop is currently producing prototype fibers in Asia using oilseed flax and hemp from North America. Oilseed flax covers almost 1.8 million acres just north and south of the Canadian border, he said, and the waste is burned every year. "There’s a big opportunity there."
They’re blending that flax with recycled fibers for the Orbital yarn system, which does not require a change in factory settings. "That’s a big point," he said. “We understand the efficiencies that are so important. It’s designed to go right into existing spinning systems. The fiber is linen-like, a natural fiber that everybody knows how to work with."
Closing the loop
Circular Systems is less than two years out from deploying their closed-loop system. With a closed-loop system, "99% of the chemicals and solvents used in the process to break down the wood pulp are recovered and recycled with minimal waste and very low emissions," Nichelson said.
In contrast, he said, some of the alternative fibers being produced by other companies, including banana and pineapple, use linear processing, where wastewater is generated and filled with caustic chemicals like sodium hydroxide, a direct derivative of the chlorine industry production. It also includes external energy used to run the mill. "This is cottage industry stuff reliant on terrible labor practices for preprocessing and using viscous processing not done responsibly," he said.
"We cannot raise production for polyester or other fibers. It’s not going to be enough. There are alternatives needed, and many new materials are coming to the market."
Circular Systems plans to use agricultural waste fiber in the tropics as well, "to get these massive volumes of bananas, sugarcane. Right now, that’s all rotting," he said. There’s too much biomass to compost, and it’s creating tremendous amounts of methane, he said.
Factories would be built locally. "You can’t move this agricultural waste too far. They have to be processed in a 100-mile radius, or closer to where they’re generated. That’s because they’ll be rotting in transit. Every kilometer you move them, they’re losing value."
Using closed-loop processing, they won’t need external energy – it will be derived from the agricultural waste. "That’s a biochemical approach, the big difference," he said. They designed a regenerative system where the only effluence produced is "perfect soil amendments."
Circular Systems sees sustainability and its social impact as more than just environmental." Their business model includes local stakeholders, with regional NGOs and governments setting up their own factories to produce the fibers, getting soil enrichments and surplus bioenergy from it. "It would work like a little power station for the community. They’d have economic, social and environmental benefits coming from what is waste and climate liability right now," he said.
Support across the supply chain
Circular Systems is finding doors opening up in areas where the supply chain is already set up. "The big brands are helping to drive that because they need the resource efficiency and impact reduction, and to improve or maintain their profit margins. We’re getting support top-down from big brands into the industry, pushing down into their supply chain and the regional players. They’ll be our partners in this system," Nichelson said.
Circular Systems is currently working with H&M, which will be the first retailer to roll out their products in the mass space. Levi Strauss has been supportive as well, and they’re working with the company in 2019, as well as with several other major sportswear companies. They partnered with some influencer and avant-garde brands like Matthew Williams of Alyx Studios on a closed-loop project in Europe.
"20% of textiles going into the factory end up in the cutting room floor."
CEO, Circular Systems
Major sportswear brands are setting up a Texloop task force in Asia, and there’s a similar project in Portugal. The idea is for the recycling to happen locally, with facilities in Asia supplying recycled yarn for factories in Asia. There’s a lot of support in Asia and Europe. "Given the current political climate, it’s more difficult in the U.S.," Nichelson said.
Once production is scaled, cost will be lower than conventional cotton. "Due to resource scarcity driven by land and water scarcity, we’ve hit peak cotton prices. Their prices will never go as low as they were the last few years. We can hit conventional cotton prices even at their lowest point a year ago."