Fast fashion is killing the planet. These chemists fight back

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Our clothes don’t die – or, at least, the non-biodegradable textiles they are made from usually don’t get a second life.

“Textiles are these complex mixtures of different materials,” says Moby Ahmed, technical director of Ambercycle, a textile recycling startup. Examples are cotton, polyester, spandex, nylon, and acrylic – so basically most of the materials that make up the clothes in your closet.

In 2018 alone, 11.3 million tonnes of this textile mixture waste ended up in landfills, the EPA says. And the lion’s share of that waste comes from clothing – worth more than a billion pieces of clothing.

Quick mode – a term used to describe an industry that relies on rapid manufacturing and styles that go out of fashion quickly – depends on these textiles. A Royal Society for Arts (RSA) London June 2021 report found that over 80% of some website offerings contained new plastic, and despite recent media attention, clothing companies are still lagging behind in embracing truly recycled clothing in their product lines.

Although there are clothes made from recycled polyester, calling them “recycled” is a bit dishonest – trendy, most recycled polyester pulls plastic from water bottles, not clothes. And according to Ambercycle, the mechanical method of recycling textiles, where they are torn to shreds and reused, cannot unravel these complex mixtures and shorten the fibers, limiting their reuse value.

Ahmed and Ambercycle CEO Shay Sethi deploy a different and proprietary form of recycling, which separates materials at the molecular level. This is called chemical recycling, and the technique allows Ambercycle to remove plastic fibers from textiles, leaving the fibers unscathed and ready to be used in new garments.

“Recycling chemicals is like the holy grail of fashion. ”

Shay Sethi

Ambercycle’s first target? Polyester.

Polyester and the rise of plastics

“Over the past 4,000 years, our clothes have been mostly made of one material,” Sethi explains, referring to cotton. In the 12th century, these clothes were recycled into paper. But growing populations with new and unique needs required different types of textiles.

In the mid-1900s, fully synthetic nylon and polyester textiles burst onto the scene, emerging from chemical labs to compete with the materials that have dressed humanity for centuries – cotton, wool, silk.

“As early as 1940, the invention of polyester changed the fashion industry,” explains Sethi.

Polyester is a type of plastic and is generally derived from petroleum. (That’s right: you probably wear oil.)

“They are strong fibers, relatively inexpensive and reliable” Textile exchange Liesl Truscott said Vogue. “While cotton and other natural fibers may be a bit more vulnerable to availability or to weather conditions and climate change.”

As Truscott points out, the synthetic fibers that can be so damaging to the environment ironically help us explore that environment. Synthetic fibers are lightweight but strong, and they add elasticity and moisture-wicking properties that are popular in technical clothing, sportswear and underwear.

Polyester itself is inexpensive, tough – too much resistant – and requiring little maintenance, it was first marketed to the American public by highlighting its anti-wrinkle properties. And since its parabolic popularity in the 60s, 70s and 80s, polyester has grown into a versatile fabric.

By 2004, polyester had overtaken cotton in popularity. According to a research report by Textile exchange, It represented just over half of global fiber production in 2019, with 58 million tonnes of material produced. Recycled polyester only accounted for 14% of this huge market in 2019.

The lack of recycled polyester could be due to the fact that it is often blended with cotton and other natural fibers to increase their durability.

“It’s probably one of the worst options because you’ve mixed a natural material with a synthetic,” Truscott told Vogue.

“In terms of being able to recycle it and separate these materials for different recycling streams, that’s practically impossible at the moment. “

This is where Ambercycle comes in.

Recycling Polyester

In college, Sethi and Ahmed developed their chemical recycling process.

“What we basically do is purify and separate the polyester from the mixed textile waste,” explains Ahmed.

This works like that: textiles on their last yarn are collected by Ambercycle from donation organizations, businesses, government collaborators – even torn from a dumpster. All of their material, like zippers and buttons, is removed and textiles are shredded.

The shredded material goes through a series of reactors, where chemical processes separate the polyester from the natural materials, dyes and all of the other components that make up the fabric. The process leaves behind this cellulose waste, which is collected for recycling or reclaimed by Ambercycle partners, and difficult-to-recycle dyes. These dyes can be burned for energy, but the company says it is actively looking for other ways to work with the waste.

The remaining refined polyester is then purified and made into pellets, which Ambercycle calls cycora.

These cycora pellets are spun into fibers, made into clothing, and hopefully can go through this life cycle over and over again, leading to a circular fashion economy – which is a challenge in itself.

“Getting a piece of clothing out of someone’s closet in the clothing supply chain is a very, very tricky thing to do.”

Shay Sethi

Ambercycle is actively looking for ways to ensure cycora clothing is recycled, including digital passports that can provide customers with information on what to do with their clothing when it has passed its useful life.

Infinite textiles

Cheap and readily available fast fashion, and the synthetic fibers from which it is made, are unlikely to shrink; If anything, Sethi says, garments containing polyester and similar fibers will only increase their market share at an even faster rate.

The focus must therefore be on transforming these old materials into something new.

“Our vision is, in the next three years, to produce 50,000 tonnes per year of cycora,” said Ahmed.

Hopefully this vision will eventually establish what Ambercycle calls an ecosystem of endless textiles, where materials like polyester are taken out of the waste cycle and reused, over and over again.

Beyond catwalks and tailoring, luxury or fast fashion, clothing boils down to a story, Sethi says, and more and more stories are now driven by sustainability.

“Because it’s one of those things that literally touches every person,” Sethi says.

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