When Game of Thrones actress Maisie Williams put on the denim outfit she’s wearing in the picture, she was wearing the future. Her entire outfit is made from 100 % regenerated textile waste. Old bedsheets and towels, to be exact. The technology to turn textile trash into treasure already exists, meaning that full circularity is no longer a far-off ambition. It is now a choice. Are the major players in the textile industry ready to commit to sustainability and invest into the infrastructure that enables waste flows to be collected, sorted and regenerated on a commercial scale? Infinited Fiber Company Oy, Espoo/Finland, believes so – because there is so much to be gained by all involved!
Clean is the new black
All the major global fashion brands have already made pledges to do their bit to clean up one of the world’s biggest and most destructive industries. The same trend is quickly catching on also on the nonwovens side. The consumers of disposable soft hygiene products are increasingly looking for Earth-friendly options, and producers increasingly see sustainability as a priority on the agenda.
As Sandler AG Board Member and Chief Commercial Officer Dr. Ulrich Hornfeck puts it: “Sustainability continues to be a vital topic in all branches of industry and society. For personal care applications as well as for technical textiles – the demand for green solutions spans all industries and markets. For Sandler, sustainability has always been an integral part of our corporate philosophy. Our goal is to strike new paths and offer new product solutions for a sustainable future. We are always looking for innovative partners, who are willing to go the distance with us and make the products of tomorrow a reality today. Companies like Infinited Fiber and the raw materials they provide take us one step closer to achieving this goal – to making our vision a reality.”
With all the diapers, baby wipes, and female sanitary products out there, this is great news for our home planet! And what is great for Infinited Fiber Company is that many of these players have tried and tested their technology and found that it meets their tough sustainability and performance demands.
An alternative to virgin cotton
So, what makes Infinited Fiber’s way of giving old textiles a new lease on life different? Quite a few things, actually.
First, the basics. The process of regenerating textile waste into new cellulose carbamate fiber falls into the category of chemical recycling. The other category, mechanical recycling, has great environmental credentials, but is limited by 2 major issues:
1) It can only be applied to high purity feedstock – like pure cotton waste – ruling out the vast majority of post-consumer textile waste, which generally consists of blended fabrics.
2) The process decreases fiber length, meaning that the quality of the recycled fiber is inferior to that of the feedstock.
Focusing on the chemical recycling of textiles, 3 things in particular set Infinited Fiber Company’s technology apart.
1) The cellulose carbamate fiber created using Infinited Fiber Company’s technology has a natural, soft look and feel. It looks and feels like cotton, offering brands and consumers alike a real alternative to the use of cultivated virgin cotton, which requires vast areas of agricultural land that could otherwise be used to produce food for the world’s growing population.
Cotton growing often happens in already water-scarce parts of the world. It uses immense amounts of water for irrigation when the water should really be used for quenching people’s thirsts. Huge amounts of pesticides are also used in the process, further adding to land and water degradation. While industry forecasts indicate that demand for cotton will continue to grow, production will not be able to keep up, and alternatives like Infinited Fiber are needed to fill the gap.
While this cellulose carbamate fiber looks and feels like cotton, its characteristics are unique. For example, it has significantly better color uptake than competing fibers, e.g. cotton, providing cost savings and positive environmental impact. Unlike polymer fibers (recycled or otherwise), the fiber is biodegradable. Also, because it is completely cellulose-based, it produces no microplastic residue to mess up oceanic food chains.
Furthermore, there is already a plan in place for when textiles made of the fiber reach the end of their life: they can be regenerated again and again using the same process. Which brings us back to the beginning, and the second key differentiator that speaks on behalf of this technology.
2) The Infinited Fiber technology enables multiple diverse waste streams to be used as feedstock for producing the same, stable, high-quality fiber. While the focus has been on perfecting the technology to enable circularity in the textile industry, pre- and post-consumer textiles are not the only feedstock that can be used in the process. In fact, any cellulose-rich feedstock will do. For example, cardboard waste can also be used, or agricultural refuse – such as the cotton crop residues that are now abandoned as waste and often incinerated.
This versatility makes the technology flexible and offers various stakeholders new, additional revenue streams. By offering a way to create value out of several different forms of waste it also offers a way to reduce the need for landfilling and incineration – the extremely unsustainable and all-too-common way nearly all textile waste is treated today. The sophisticated waste collection, sorting and tracing processes needed to create transparent and efficient commercial-scale circular systems also creates new business models and investment opportunities for new players.
3) An evaluation of the planetary credentials of a textile fiber obviously needs to take into account the entire production process – not just the qualities of the end product. Here, again, the technology is unique. While most of competing technologies in the chemical textile recycling segment only produce pulp, which is then used for the production of viscose, here a fiber is produced that is ready for nonwovens applications or to be spun into yarn.
While viscose is produced using carbon disulfide (CS2), a highly volatile and flammable nerve poison that poses risks for both people and the environment, Infinited Fiber Company’s organic solvent-free cellulose carbamate production process replaces carbon disulfide with urea, which is a safe, natural compound. The company is currently carrying out a life cycle assessment of the process and the aim is to create the model for a zero-discharge factory.
Because the base component of the process – a cellulose concentrate powder – is extremely stable and easy to store, the different production stages can be carried out in different locations to limit greenhouse gas emissions. This means, for example, that the carbamation process can be carried out at a location where feedstock is readily available, while the dissolving and the fiber spinning can be done at another location close to the yarn manufacturers.
Looking 10 years ahead, the dream is for the textile industry to already be largely sustainable and circular, and for the technology to have been a key driver in that massive transformation. This will take hard work, strong commitment, and some hefty investments on the fashion side of textiles. On the nonwovens side, attaining circularity is perhaps even more of a challenge given the disposable nature of a majority of the product range.
However, the massive amount of waste generated by the nonwovens textile industry is exactly why the need for sustainable, circular solutions is so urgent. What products are made from is a crucial question. Are they biodegradable or recyclable? What are the various waste streams that could and should be captured throughout the value chain?
While this is not a solution for recycling dirty diapers (amazingly, someone else already does!), Infinited Fiber company does offer a versatile technology that can help the textile industry clean up its act, enable brands to live up to their green pledges, and offer consumers the Earth-friendly options they are so hungry for.
CEO, Infinited Fiber Company Oy, Espoo/Finland
This article has been published in TRENDBOOK Technical Textiles 2020/21 –The Textile World 2030 which is ligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).
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