Recycling clothes is a complex job.
Most textile recyclers today can only recycle and recover one material. That means your polyester-cotton blend T-shirt may be recycled, but only one of the two materials will be salvageable to use again.
Then there’s the question of whether or not that fiber will be strong enough to use on its own entirely? Or does it need to be blended with virgin fibers to keep it going.
Peter Majeranowski and Conor Hartman of Circ have a solution that can solve this. They’ve raised $8 million from Patagonia, Japanese conglomerate Marubeni, and Alante Capital, and Card Sound Capital, to put the technology to work in textiles that will debut later this year.
The path till date has been fortuitous, but long — a decade in the making. Circ has its roots in biofuels, actually: it was originally named Tyton BioScience, and was shepherded by a Polish scientist who was looking for a non-food crop to be used in biofuels. He had settled on tobacco. As Majeranowski went into business with the scientist, he learned that “he was a very good salesman.” Yet he had not thought through how the tobacco would be processed exactly.
“We could see the edge over the cliff, in terms of our company,” says Majeranowski. “Nobody wanted to invest in biofuels at the time. We were scrambling to look for new applications.”
Consulting with researchers, he learned that a similar hydrothermal processing system could be used in textile recycling. In fact, the cotton-polyester combo, Hartman says, is “like looking at plants. Cotton is the cellulose, and polyester is the lingin.”
Since then the duo have been working on refining this recycling process which would enable them to not only recover the polyester, but also the cotton, and in a manner that it would keep the integrity of the fibers in tact, says Hartman. This is the key distinction in their innovation, he adds. Breaking down polyester to its monomers results in a high-quality cotton cellulose, Majeranowski explains, which can serve as a replacement for tree pulp (needed to make cellulosic fibers like lyocell, rayon/viscose, modal).
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“Using recycled PET as in plastic bottles just prolongs use by one to two years. It’s not a great solution. It’s better than putting it in the landfill immediately. But now, with this technology, it can go from a bottle to board short to a board short again.”
Their timing has coincided with the fashion industry’s search for better recycling options, and increasing awareness of their environmental footprint. “It’s been like drinking from a fire hose with people knocking on our door,” Majeranowski says.
Though they’re still a startup, Circ will be putting their textiles to the test, and introducing them to the market later this year. Working with contract manufacturers around the country, and a facility in Danville, VA, Circ hopes to “keep materials in the economy [and in use] for as long as possible,” says Hartman.
While they’re focused primarily on polyester and cotton blends right now, Majeranowski adds they’ll be including more materials in their recycling roster in the future and can handle small amounts of spandex in clothing currently. Spandex has been one of the most challenging materials to repurpose in fashion, but he notes that in limited amounts (less than 5 percent typically), it can be extracted in the recycling process.
Circ uses chemical recycling, a term that troubles Majeranowski. As environmentalists, they’re not crazy about what “chemicals” suggests but he assures that it’s “responsible chemistry.”
The startup hopes to make a serious dent in the massive global consumption of textiles over the next decade. “We don’t know exactly how many clothes are produced each year. It is somewhere in the ballpark of 100 billion garments. And our goal is to recycle 10 percent of that, or 10 billion garments, by 2030,” he says.
Circ’s efforts can keep clothes in a circular loop, but it doesn’t solve one problem that plagues most brands: microplastics. Because polyester is fashion-friendly, in that it holds shape well and is durable, it’s a popular choice, particularly in the world of performance. While some brands have decided to use all natural materials, Majeranowski says, “That is ambitious and worthy, but definitely hard to achieve.”
There’s also the headache of collecting used clothing to put it through recycling facilities. New legislation in Europe will prevent anyone from throwing textiles in landfills, starting in 2025. That will then require an additional infrastructure to collect used clothing, and ensure it doesn’t get burned or thrown away.
Though the problem may seem daunting, Hartman says, “there is more plastic in our clothes than in plastic bottles. 50 million tons going in our clothing versus 20 million tons in bottles. We produce more polyester clothing every year, made of oil basically, than we do plastic bottles, and that’s why we’re trying to solve this problem.”
The question of competition doesn’t worry them either. With more chemical recyclers breaking through, comparisons are common with solutions such as H&M’s Green Machine.
“The Green Machine is a circular solution for the polyester fraction, but as we understand it, the cotton is recovered only as a cellulose powder that goes into other secondary non-textile applications as a byproduct. They recently announced that they are going to figure out how to make that cellulose powder into a textile material, but I don’t believe that it’s happened yet,” Majeranowski says.
He goes on to argue that all of these efforts are needed collectively to solve the global fashion waste problem.
“It’s important to note just how big the textile market is. If all the chemical recycling technologies out there were fully scaled and had 10 major factories, we’d still never touch elbows due to the significant size of the total addressable market. We are talking about 50 million tons per year for polyester for clothing, 26 million tons per year of cotton, and 150 million trees of pulp per year for cellulosic fibers.”
So all recycling ideas are welcome at the table.