Interest is growing in new synthetic fabrics and textiles made from waste materials that have the potential to be used again and again. Designed from the outset to work within closed-loop supply cycles, Returnity and Econyl are perhaps the two best-known examples of branded products in this field.
The level of innovation that is built into these regenerative fabrics is impressive – they outline a wealth of environmental benefits and savings. In the case of Econyl, there is a clear social value driver in terms of delivering a more community-minded, inclusive business model.
On a more technical level, however, questions persist over how effective existing supply channels and material flow routes are when it comes to maximizing re-entry points for such fibers. Closed-loop approaches for waste streams, particularly in the post-consumer space, are still in their infancy and heavily reliant on building the right types of collaborative networks.
Take the supply chain for Returnity, a 100 percent recyclable polyester. It involves sourcing raw materials, making yarns, weaving, manufacturing and distribution to the customer. Used clothing is eventually collected, shredded, melted and turned back into yarns, thereby closing the loop. To ensure traceability, the raw materials and products all have unique barcodes with progress monitored via web-based ‘track and trace’ system.
Dutch aWEARness, which owns the European license for the product, oversees each stage of the cycle. Founder Rien Otto says there are a number of factors that need to be in place to ensure the system works. These include a willingness among stakeholders to take collective responsibility for both the products and the chain.
“We worked with our suppliers face-to-face to understand how all parties could collaborate and see a commercial return. It takes a big leap of faith to change business models, but by working together, you learn every day and make progress more quickly,” he tells Sustainable Brands.
This view is echoed by Giulio Bonazzi, president & CEO of Aquafil – the company behind Econyl, a nylon made from waste materials such as discarded fishing nets. Speaking recently to Sustainable Brands, he says: “In order to reinvent the supply chain and successfully create a re-engineered product, collaborations with new industries must be created and agreed upon by all parties involved.”
Otto points out that developing open platforms in order to share knowledge and innovation is critical, as is having the technology and experience to recycle fabrics to a high enough quality specification with minimal use of resources.
Dutch aWEARness is actively looking to scale up production of Returnity in the workwear market through a new circular economy initiative, EcoProFabrics, which is piloting the eco-effectiveness of the fabric and its associated processes on a wider scale with various customers across five European countries.
“Within EcoProFabrics, a circular chain is developed and tested on a large scale,” Otto explains. “The development includes a circular content management system combining ERP (enterprise resource planning), track and trace and lifecycle assessment features. The system has dashboard capabilities presenting the environmental performance up to the level of the individual user.”
The EcoProFabrics project is being managed by Royal HaskoningDHV. According to project manager Edward Pfeiffer, it offers a useful opportunity to build, test and operate a circular economy in a live context.
“This means we have already been able to identify, understand and resolve at an early stage the practical issues likely to emerge on a larger scale. We now have valuable, practical chain management insights which can directly support clients interested in embracing new circular economy opportunities,” Pfeiffer tells SB.
Circular economy practitioner Mark Shayler, founder of Ape, feels that closed-loop fiber technology offers huge potential – especially for more synthetic materials such as polyester and nylon.
“Technically, there is no difference between reprocessed and virgin polyester. If you’re making a garment out of polyester, there’s no question that using a closed-loop supply will give you exactly the same quality as a using a virgin supply,” he tells SB.
The real circular challenge for textiles, he argues, is around natural fibers.
“This is much harder to do for cotton than it is for polyester and nylon. The polymers have significant advantages here because you can take them right back down to their chemical elements and remanufacture them.”
Bonazzi acknowledges there are limitations on this front. Referring to Econyl, he says while it is technically feasible to blend it with any kind of fiber – synthetic or natural – a high content of Nylon 6 will help maximize quality and regeneration potential.
“From a long-term environmental standpoint, blending Econyl fibers with anything other than Nylon 6 can pose a potential problem during the subsequent recycling process. Based on our research, blended fibers should have a minimum of 85 to 90 percent Nylon 6 composition in order to be recycled at the end of their product life.”