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Unpicking the circular code

Many have hailed 2019 as the year that the world woke up to the climate crisis. Even the World Economic Forum has focused on it, making ‘sustainability’ the theme of its 2020 Davos conference. Then COVID-19 happened.

While the world has been focusing all of its efforts on curtailing the spread of the virus, conversations around sustainably have been largely absent from public and political discourse. But moving forward, we must ensure that while we are dealing with COVID, conversations about wastefulness are not completely bypassed over the coming months, or possibly years.

Generation Z seems to be particularly engaged in the issue of sustainability, except perhaps when it comes to fashion, with the ‘fast fashion’ industry growing year on year. So, what is the real cost of fast fashion? According to a report by National Geographic, producing one pair of jeans produces the same amount of greenhouse gases as driving a car for 80 miles. Equally sobering, the same report claims 2,700 litres of water are needed to make one cotton shirt – that’s enough water to sustain a person for two and a half years.

Despite the alarming impact of fast fashion, consumers aren’t yet changing their behaviour. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that 84% of unwanted garments in the US ended up in either landfill or an incinerator in 2012.

It was in response to this massive wastefulness that Cyndi Rhoades founded Worn Again Technologies in 2005. The company was initially set up as an upcycling business and has now evolved as a pioneer of textile recycling.

We spoke to Cyndi about how her company is combating the problem of textile waste.

Q – Worn Again has gone through quite a transition since your early days – tell us about the decisions behind that.
In the early days, our primary focus was on upcycling, making second life products out of existing textile resources. Over the years, we went through a couple of iterations, finding textile waste from various places to becoming more targeted, going to the source of large-scale textile waste – which saw us work with organisations such as McDonald’s and Virgin Atlantic.

This was very much an experimental phase: we were tinkering with the problem but hadn’t quite recognised how to get to the root of it.
After we became more aware of the potential of chemical recycling in 2010, the next two years of research culminated in our big ‘Aha!’ moment. Nick Ryan, now Worn Again’s Technology Director, and I recognised that if we wanted to solve the problem of textile waste, we needed to be recycling at the molecular level. And that’s when we had a chance meeting with our now Chief Scientific Officer, Dr Adam Walker, who held the scientific key to address the problem we were looking to solve.

That key was in not just reusing textiles, but in breaking them down, decontaminating the raw materials, and getting them back to a virgin equivalent quality to then go back into supply chains as new.

Q – Fantastic. It’s inspiring to hear that you started with the problem and worked from there. So how does the actual technology process work?
With our process, we’re able to take in polyester and cotton textiles: they can be pure or blended and can have up to 20% ‘other’ materials, such as wool, nylon and elastane. Before going into the process, there is a pre-processing step to cut textiles and remove buttons, zippers, metal and trim.

The textiles feedstock is then introduced into our polymer recycling process, which uses a closed-loop solvent system to separate, decontaminate and extract polyester and cellulose from cotton raw materials.

The first part of the process deals with polyester. Essentially, anything that went into the textiles during their production process is removed, including dyes, finishes and other contaminants. The solvent dealing with the polyester is separated out, leaving us with a PET resin, in the form of pellets, which constitute the building block that goes into fibre spinning and textile production – eventually becoming new garments again.

On the cotton side of things, once separated from the polyester, it goes through a similar set of process steps where we decontaminate, dissolve, and recapture the cellulosic pulp from the cotton, which can then also go back into fibre spinning.

In short, we’re recapturing and restoring the raw materials used to make textiles so they can go back into the supply chain as new again.

Q – That process sounds relatively complex. How are the costs of the recaptured raw materials affected? Do they become more expensive than their virgin counterparts?
When we transitioned and became technology-focused in 2012, after achieving proof of concept in the lab with our polymer recycling approach, we knew we were going to need financing to take this technology to market.

We first approached H&M, who we brought on board as an investor, and then the Kering Group (owner of luxury brands that include Gucci and Yves St Lauren) as a contributor for research and development (R&D).

We knew quite early on, through this brand engagement, that there was a real demand for a process like ours, once industrialised, to produce virgin equivalent quality raw materials that could also compete on price, rather than having a price premium (which is often the case with the more sustainable alternatives). Our concern was that our sustainability output would inevitably be treated as a niche product or something that would be in addition to what companies are already doing. So we put this goal at the core of our developments.

When we gave the design brief to Adam, it included three key goals. Firstly, to produce outputs that are comparable in quality with raw materials. Secondly, the process itself has to be environmentally beneficial. And thirdly, the outputs from our process have to be able to compete on price.

As we move towards commercialisation and licensing our technology, we are focused and are so far on track with the development of a low cost and scalable process that will enable our future plant operators to achieve all three of these goals.

Q – If globally embraced, would this circular textile process be able to accommodate a seemingly insatiable consumer appetite for ‘fast fashion’, or must the nature of how we consume radically change also?
That’s a very big question. But it’s also something that’s on everyone’s minds. I think the first thing to say is that from our company’s position, the way we look at circularity is from a raw material perspective and responsibility around recycling.

In any case, we would want to see textiles that are suitable for reuse to continue being reused. The intention is that as soon as textiles are no longer re-wearable and can’t be reused as textiles, then they can go into our process.

Whether consumption rates continue to grow, whether they level out, whatever the case may be, there will always be a role for chemical or polymer recycling because we will always wear out textiles.

Ultimately, from a raw material perspective, there is currently enough polyester, cotton and textiles to satisfy our annual demand for making new textiles today; the problem is, we’re just throwing them away instead of re-capturing and reprocessing them.

Q – As you grow as a company, what can you and the circular textile industry you’re a part offer in terms of job creation?
To answer that, I will give you an overview of our business model and where we’re at. At the moment we are still pre-industrialisation, with a variety of workplaces located in several locations.

We are currently going through the final phase of R&D, moving into the scaling phase and that involves transitioning from the lab and pilot
plant to, eventually, a demo plant.

Our goal at the end of the development phase, after our demo plant has proven economic viability and scalability, will be to license the technology. Long term, we won’t be building plants ourselves; we will be licensing to different types of plant operators globally.

What that means for our people is that in the pre-industrialisation phase, we’re growing our team, we’re bringing in new expertise, adding to R&D with scaling expertise and product expertise. As we move into the commercialisation phase, we will also require a sales team and continued business development roles.

From our company perspective, the roles created evolve at each stage of development in terms of the expertise that’s needed. Once we’ve licensed our technology and we’ve got plants 1, 5, 10, 20… and so on, that is a new type of expertise; at that stage, the requirement will be for highly skilled operators and technicians, although this will be external to our business and a responsibility of our licensed plant operators.

One area where we see extensive opportunities for new employment is in new business models for textiles reuse, as well as collection and aggregation, preparation and supply of high volume, end-of-use textiles feedstock into processes such as ours. Again, this will be external to our business, but imperative to our success.

Q – You’ve talked about your company operating in various locations. In terms of company culture, is that something you find hard to nurture?
It can be difficult. I think whether you’re a small or a big team, being spread out in different locations does present challenges in terms of communication and keeping people connected.

I think we’ve done a good job of building internal communications. At times it is a challenge, but it’s also exciting. The mindset of our team in the lab in Nottingham can be different from the mindset of some of the commercial team in London, as well as our chemical engineers in Switzerland. Then you add into the mix investors from all over the globe.

The key to it all is that everyone has bought into the vision and the purpose of the company, and when you have that, the mindset of a scientist will become aligned with the mindset of an investor. Because we’re all striving for the same end goal and that’s what binds us together.

Q – Finally, what does your vision of the future hold for Worn Again Technologies and your recycling technology?
The future is all about achieving our goal and that is the replacement of virgin resources with circular raw materials.

What’s important is how we get there, and there is still a long way to go. It’s extremely difficult when you are pre-revenue and building a technology that takes a number of years to commercialise. It’s a real challenge to keep the development going with the finance raise, with the wider market… there are so many variables involved.

The short-term goal is to get our technology to market. The long-term goal is to scale it as rapidly as possible. However, this is not going to be down to us alone. We will be the technology provider that enables an entire industry to transform the way it uses resources moving forward, but it will take all of the players touching these resources – from supply chains to brands to consumers and collectors – all collaborating to make this circular system effective. We are seeing the wider market galvanising around circularity; it’s getting ready for it, learning about it, understanding it, getting supply chains ready and that’s what’s exhilarating

*Update: In June 2020 Worn Again Technologies had investments from H&M Group and Sulzer, accelerating its progress towards commercialisation

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