Circular Systems' innovative technology promises to transform food waste fibers into wearable fabric.
The fashion industry is said to be the second most polluting industry on Earth after oil and gas. It requires enormous quantities of resources, including water, land, and fossil fuels, to make fabric. The production process is often harmful to the environment, relying on harsh chemical dyes and finishes.
Fortunately, more people are becoming aware of these problems, thanks to eye-opening documentaries like "The True Cost," sustainable fashion advocates like actress Emma Watson and activist Livia Firth, and high-profile reports like the one recently published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Headlines warning of plastic microfibre pollution have helped to push the issue into the spotlight, and there is growing backlash against 'disposable' fast fashion.It's a good time, in other words, to be a sustainable fashion startup, especially if you offer an innovative new technology that solves multiple problems at once. This is precisely what Circular Systems is doing. The new materials science company was recently awarded a $350,000 grant in the form of a Global Change Award by the H&M Foundation for its work in transforming food waste fibers into usable fabrics.
The idea is brilliant and dead-simple. There is a ton of food crop waste globally, an estimated 250 million tons from the byproducts of five key food crops -- bananas peels and stalks, pineapple leaves, flax and hemp stalks, and crushed sugar cane. Using Circular Systems' new technology, this waste can be turned into fabric, which means:
(a) Farmers don't have to burn the waste and contribute to air pollution
(b) Less waste will be sent to landfill to rot and emit methane
(c) Arable land is freed up to grow food, rather than fabric crops
(d) There is less demand for fossil fuels to make synthetic fabrics
(e) Fewer chemicals would be needed to grow cotton, a high-input crop
We've called the technology 'new,' but in reality it's a throwback to the past. There was a time when the vast majority of clothes were made from natural fibers (97 percent of clothing in 1960), but that number has shrunk to only 35 percent today. By harnessing the bounty of food waste fibers, Circular Systems' founder Isaac Nichelsen says 2.5 times the current global demand for fiber could be met.
Circular Systems comprises three technologies. The first is called the Agraloop Bio-Refinery, and it is a system that works at the farm level to convert food waste into resources with modular mini-mills. Described by Fast Company,
"The same farmers and producers who harvest the crops can own and use Agraloop systems to create additional revenue for themselves, and put their excess waste to use."
The second technology is Texloop, which converts textile scraps and used clothing into new fibers. This is a desperately needed innovation as well, since so much of the clothing that's tossed every year could be reused, but the technology to salvage it is underdeveloped. FastCo writes:
"Around 16 percent of all textiles end up scrapped on cutting-room floors, and 85 percent of used clothing ends up in landfills. Texloop uses a proprietary technology to blend a variety of natural and synthetic textiles into new threads and fabrics."
The third technology is called Orbital, and it offers a way of blending food crop waste fibers with textile waste fibers, turning it into a "durable and moisture wicking" new yarn product. While partnerships are not yet finalized for this product, Nichelsen told FastCo that there's been interest from major sportswear manufacturers.
The fact that Circular Systems has been given such a financial boost shows that it's on to something big. As Nichelsen said, "The time was really right. We made some breakthroughs in our technologies recently, and there was also a breakthrough in the market." Hopefully it won't be long before we'll be seeing these technologies on our clothing labels.