The potential of a circular economy continues to unfold as new technologies are help transform everything from post-consumer textiles to almond shells into high-quality raw materials.
CARBIOS, a pioneer in the field of bioplasturgy, has taken its enzymatic depolymerization process to the next level, rendering it applicable to PET polyester fibers from textile waste.
After the successful demonstration that enzymatic depolymerization applied to PET plastics enables the virtuous cycle of a return to virgin PET, the company is now opening the process up to PET textile fibers to return them to their original monomers: PTA (terephthalic acid) and MEG (mono ethylene glycol).
Polyester is the single-largest-volume fiber produced globally, taking about a 50 percent share of the overall fiber market. The dominant type of polyester is polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Each year 43 million tons of PET are produced for the fiber market, compared to 15 million tons dedicated to the production of plastic bottles. The key objective of this new process is to provide the recycling industry with a competitive solution to upcycle post-consumer PET polyester fabrics and the textile industry with the ability to use recycled PET fibers that can fully replace those made from fossil resources.
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The vast majority of textile waste is currently sent to landfills or incinerated. When textile fibers are recycled, the resulting material is typically of lower quality than the original. As Europe and countries around the world struggle to recycle mountains of textile waste, CARBIOS could help companies unlock new economic opportunities while reducing environmental impacts.
“Turning unwanted polyester textiles into high-quality raw materials for new products using CARBIOS enzymatic technology is an opportunity for completely changing textile manufacturing and trade in Europe and beyond,” said Alain Marty, Chief Scientific Officer at CARBIOS. “From a sustainable perspective, our approach will significantly improve the overall life cycle impact of textile products.”
The potential of a circular economy has even piqued the interest of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). According to Fast Company, the organization is in the midst of researching ways to put almond shells and hulls to good use.
For every pound of almonds grown, two pounds of hull is produced. In 2017 alone, farmers in California produced 4.3 billion pounds of almond hulls — that’s a lot of agricultural waste. Traditionally, hulls have been used in animal feed or livestock bedding, but the dwindling dairy industry (their biggest market) has made prices drop and prompted farmers to begin exploring other uses. As it turns out, the possibilities are endless.
Energy generation and biofuel production are just two of the myriad of ways hulls can be repurposed. However, this avenue isn’t the most profitable. In its research lab in Berkeley, Calif., the USDA is exploring alternatives that could generate more value than simply burning the materials to produce energy, such as bioplastics. And what they’ve found so far could help accelerate the transition away from fossil fuel-based plastics.
One of the main problems presented by bioplastics is that they often lack the level of heat stability and stiffness offered by conventional plastics. Researchers at the USDA lab, however, found that by adding a charcoal-like powder derived from almond shells, they could make bioplastics stronger and more heat stable. Bill Orts, a research lead at the lab, believes the discovery could help encourage more manufacturers to finally ditch petroleum-based packaging.
“A lot of plastic manufacturers want to use postconsumer recycled plastic, but it’s usually downcycled,” Orts told Fast Company. “It’s usually a plastic that doesn’t have the stiffness or heat stability they really want.”
Researchers also found that sugar extracted from the waste product could be used to make beer, feed honeybees and improve soil health.
According to the USDA, the goal of these experiments is to show companies what is possible and inspire them to throw their weight behind the idea and bring it to market. “It’s about finding a business plan,” Orts said. “How do you go from this crazy thing to a marketable thing? Then somebody has to take a risk and commit money.