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Circularity Rolls

OrthoLite Cirql’s chemical-free foaming production process.

There is progress on the circularity front these days, as suppliers prioritize actions to advance textile-to-textile recycling, establish comprehensive cross-sector collaboration and bring to market materials developed for circularity. Growth is happening in take back programs, resale technologies and eco legislation. And increasingly executives are adopting “circular thinking” that promotes reductions in production and consumption, along with new perspectives on how businesses define success. 

Yet challenges abound. Recent statistics are daunting. Consider these takeaways from an Eileen Fisher Foundation report called Hey Fashion! commissioned through Pentatonic, a design and technology consultancy specializing in sustainability: 

 The fashion industry is valued around $2.4 trillion and employs over 45 million people worldwide. 

However, the industry simultaneously, loses about $500 billion of value every year due to lack of recycling and clothes thrown into landfills before even being sold. Further, less than one percent of material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing. 

Additional market research finds that 150 billion new clothing items are produced annually; this volume of clothing produced and discarded is outpacing what recyclers can process. It’s estimated that apparel makes up 6.7 percent of the world’s GHG emissions, rising to 8 percent when footwear is included, according to Qantis.

Textile Exchange shares that our clothes only compose 0.5 percent recycled pre-consumer, and 0.2 percent of recycled post-consumer waste. 

If these and other projections aren’t reversed, experts believe that global textile waste will increase by 60 percent annually by 2030, when it will be an estimated 148 million tons per year. 

“Given the damage the linear model creates, a new approach to business is required. Circular means using resources wisely and generating revenue from what was already made,” writes Nicole Bassett in a blog post. Bassett, founder of The Renewal Workshop, and pioneer of the “repair, reuse, recycle” model, is currently the Circularity Lead at Bleckman Solutions, a supply chain logistics specialist with warehousing and fulfillment. Bleckman acquired The Renewal Workshop earlier this year, expanding its services to include Collection/Trade-In, Renewal and Resale of items ready for the next use. 

Circularity as a Team Sport

“A big focus right now for Unifi is textile-to-textile recycling. Unifi sees this as the future and is 100 percent committed to supporting it.” says Chad Bolick, VP global key accounts at Unifi. 

Bolick, with almost 30 years of experience in the textile industry, and 15 with Unifi, likens this era of textile-to-textile recycling to the early 2000s when Repreve was evolving and recycling plastic bottles. “There is a lot of buzz around the topic, but maybe still lacking a full understanding of how it happens and what’s needed to make it happen, in regard to collection and sorting,” explains Bolick. “A lot of the infrastructure is still being built and a lot of tech for textile-to-textile recycling is still evolving.”

Bolick highlights three market drivers advancing circularity in today’s marketplace: a fast fashion mentality that clothing is a short-term use; a younger generation asking ‘what do we do with all this waste?’; and pressure from consumers on brands to find a solution to this problem. 

“We are very far along with mechanical recycling, but what we call ‘the prep’ – collecting, sortation and deconstruction of the material part of the supply chain – is just now forming,” shares Bolick. “There are a lot of new companies trying to play in this space, and that’s great, because we need them.”

Through involvement with the non-profit Accelerating Circularity, Unifi is now doing various trials at its North Carolina facility with a focus on post-consumer waste recycling, and how Unifi can take this waste and make sure it doesn’t go to a landfill. 

Bolick cites Accelerating Circularity’s willingness for open cross-industry collaboration as a welcome approach. “It’s like the companies take their name off the front of their jersey. You feel like you’re all on the same team and allows us to openly discuss the issues.” 

Bolick served as moderator during a panel discussion on the topic of circularity at the Southern Textiles Association (STA) Summer Marketing Forum 2022. Panelist Raymond Randall, senior manager, textiles - sustainability growth solutions at Waste Management explained, “We can collect, we can sort, but capacity is the third leg in this stool that is still needed for success.” New equipment and tech processes are ramping up at WM to advance circularity, according to Randall, who highlighted WM’s established recycling relationship with Unifi and a current project underway with a uniform supplier.  

“Textile-to-textile recycling is the next evolution for our industry,” said Tricia Carey, director of global business development denim and Americas, Lenzing, and panel participant, who sees the industry moving from a supply chain to a supply network – a sentiment shared by Bolick, Randall and panelists Bob Carswell, R&D director at Material Return and Daniel Mason, president of Leigh Fibers. 

“In the past, textile waste was looked at as someone else’s problem, but now waste is becoming an asset,” commented Carey. For example, Lenzing’s Refibra fabric, made of upcycled cotton scraps from pre- and post-consumer cotton waste and Lenzing Lyocell fibers, has been embraced by industry. 

Lenzing, like Unifi and WM, partners with Accelerating Circularity, and as such is involved in regional textile-to-textile recycling trials. Lenzing has two trials currently underway. “It’s a great start,” said Carey. 

When asked what it will take to make textile-to-textile recycling mainstream, Leigh Fibers’ Mason, stated, “Information to the general public; More investment in younger companies coming in with processing technologies, and convenience of recycling participation by consumers.” Carswell, of NC-based Material Return, added, “Funding to innovate sortation, recycling infrastructure and consumer education.” Carey proposed, “good governance, designing for recyclability, buying less, and businesses that see value in the concept of deGrowth.”  

Kintra Fibers co-founder & COO, Alissa Baier-Lentz shows how the company’s bio-based, compostable polyester can replace traditional biodegradable polyester and nylon.
Coming Full Cirql on Footwear 

Earlier this year OrthoLite announced the launch of Cirql, a recyclable and industrially compostable foam created as an alternative to conventional footwear plastics. Cirql is headquartered in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The flagship factory, the Cirql Center of Excellence, is designed for zero-waste production and end-of-life solutions. The company, based in Amherst, MA, is working to set up end-of-life infrastructure, which has been a missing link in the supply chain, and at the same time working with brands to encourage consumers to return footwear for recycling purposes. 

“We are making great progress,” says Kristin Burrows, OrthoLite’s chief brand officer. “We’ll be moving from this pre-launch phase into our brand launch phase in 2023 as planned.” The company has expanded its team on the sales and development side as well as engineering based on interest and anticipation of adequately serving brand partners, according to Burrows, and in addition, built out the factory in Vietnam while continuing to build up and refine the spec on the product.

“One of the most exciting things is that we’ve continued to innovate around the development of Cirql, beyond a midsole into other applications such as insoles and upper materials,” states Burrows, explaining that has always been part of OrthoLite’s plan. The polymer has proved to have the flexibility the company hoped for, according to Burrows. “We didn’t know if it would pan out that way until we got in there and tried different applications.” 

The firm is also busy developing take back programs so consumers can return end-of-life product for recycling. “This is critical to the circular story,” Burrows believes. 

Making the return process for recycling purposes easy and accessible for consumers is a big challenge. “How do we make it as simple as putting something on my front porch and it gets picked up,” says Burrows. “Convenience is key.”

When Burrows thinks back over her career in footwear, the conversation on a compostable, recyclable product for the mainstream marketplace didn’t exist. “We were solving for durability, not for sustainability,” Burrows comments. “I don’t want to lose the criteria we created in the past around durability but now we focus on environmental impact. The great news is that there is desire and talent and passion to solve this. Let’s try to speed it up.”

Ease of Recyclability 

When Alissa Baier-Lentz grew frustrated by the challenges she personally experienced in building a more sustainable supply chain, she joined forces with nano engineer Billy McCall to provide brands with materials that make no compromise between performance, price, and the planet. Their material science company, Kintra Fibers, launched in 2020, has developed a bio-based and compostable polyester that can replace traditional fossil fuel-based and non-biodegradable polyester (PET) and nylon. 

“I felt a responsibility to address this challenge of building a planet-friendly supply chain and using business as a force for doing good as a core concept,” says Baier-Lentz. “This is what’s needed for the planet, and is the most important work of our time.” 

Baier-Lentz elaborates, “Textiles currently in use enable a lifestyle that is actively polluting the outdoors with chemicals and microplastics. Our chemistry is 100 percent bio-sourced and both economically and environmentally profitable.” 

Kintra Fibers products can be designed for recyclability from the start, meeting the criteria of being bio based, compostable, with no harm to nature through use and addressing textile waste. Because of the physical and aesthetic properties Kintra Fibers affords designers – strength and softness with some stretch recovery – blends can be avoided. “We could blend with other naturals, but why? It is great as 100 percent Kintra filament yarns,” Baier-Lentz explains.

Kintra Fibers is located at the Brooklyn Navy Yard with its own lab space and R&D facility. The company works with external partners for larger scale work, with pilot qualities happening currently in Europe, and potentially upcoming in the U.S. 

Kintra materials can run on existing equipment. Mills are pleased to have access to a new innovative fiber, according to Baier-Lentz, but are attracted to bottom line results, too. “Our product reduces manufacturing cost because it operates at lower temperatures. This helps debunk the myth that eco is always more expensive,” says Baier-Lentz.

She spotlights Kintra’s partnership with Fashion for Good, an organization that serves as a hub for innovators, evaluating new materials across the supply chain and networking creatives with brands. Kintra Fibers’ pilot line is humming, according to Baier-Lentz, and expanding to commercialization.  

For the founders of Kintra Fibers, the biggest surprise during the past two years has been the level of excitement from the mills. “I thought this was going to be the biggest hurdle, but getting true interest and desire to partner with us has been exciting,” says Baier-Lentz. “I think the mills are feeling pressure from brands, consumers and policy makers, that if they are not keeping up, then they won’t be relevant.” 

Unifi’s North Carolina Repreve Recycling Center, where sustainability meets performance.
Future of Circular Thinking 

“When we think of circularity overall as a strategy, the priority needs to be reducing the generation of waste in the first place, by extending the life of materials, employing re-use, repair, remanufacturing and upcycling,” states Sarah Coulter, project fellow, Accelerating Circularity. “And yet even if we rapidly scale all these strategies most of the stuff is not suitable for these applications. We need to do something with all this material other than put it in a landfill.”

To that end, Accelerating Circularity works with companies at different points in the supply chain to see what textile-to-textile looks like from a practical standpoint relying on four technologies based on cotton, polyester mechanically recycled, chemically recycled cellulosics and chemically recycled polyester to reach the broadest swath of the industry. Having recently wrapped up the development phase, next comes making t-shirts, fleece, towels and pants to meet standard-size orders – not just capsule collections. 

Coulter and others discussed “Circular Re-thinking: How textile-to-textile recycling can make huge strides towards circularity within the textile industry” at a Texworld NY event this summer. 

Emily Gigot, senior sustainability manager, SanMar, shares, “As an industry we need to be pulling every lever that we have at our disposal to be reducing our overall impact. More specifically, if we drill down, now is the time for textile-to-textile recycling investments, because it’s becoming a supply and demand issue. On the supply side, the apparel industry is not the only industry talking about and incorporating more recyclable materials, and it’s becoming a more competitive environment in the supply chain to get the raw material feedstock in order to make products at volume consumers are demanding. We need to focus on how we take our waste within our industry and turn that into a feedstock, and expand the supply for new products to meet the growing demand.”