The Circular Fashion Revolution that Eats Shoes: Enzymes Transform Old Clothing into New Products

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Biotech startup, Carbios makes breakthrough in circular fashion with recycling technology and collaboration with well-known brands. Is this the start of efficient, large scale, fiber-to-fiber polyester recycling?

The world of fashion is becoming increasingly sustainable as the French startup Carbios accelerates the commercialization of its textile bio-recycling technology. The company has recently signed an agreement with prominent sportswear brands including On, Patagonia, Puma, and Salomon. The partnership strives to convert worn-out polyester products into new items, fostering circular fashion.

Carbios has developed a unique enzymatic process to break down polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a type of plastic commonly found in numerous products, including sportswear and footwear. This advancement is set to establish the industry’s first large-scale fiber-to-fiber polyester recycling system, presenting a significant stride towards achieving circular fashion.

While the consortium of brands can utilize plastics to create fibers, a comprehensive fiber-to-fiber recycling solution at a large scale has been missing in the industry. Concurrently, Carbios is collaborating with PET manufacturer Indorama Ventures to set up the world’s first commercial-scale bio-recycling plant for PET-based plastic in Lunéville, France. The recycling facility, which is expected to commence operations in 2025, aims to locally recycle plastic waste.

In the context of circular fashion, the unique enzyme used by Carbios, initially discovered in compost, can selectively break down polyester. This method allows for almost all the polyester found in textile waste to be recovered. Unlike conventional recycling, which lowers PET quality with each recycle, the enzymatic recycling process disintegrates PET at a molecular level. This breakdown makes it possible to produce a fresh quality material that can be recycled over and over again, potentially making the process genuinely circular.

Salomon, a French sports gear manufacturer, anticipates that this collaboration with Carbios will enable them to produce a 100 percent recycled polyester product. The two-year agreement entails brands collecting post-consumer garments that contain polyester and developing sorting and dismantling technologies. Carbios will then convert these garments into bio-recycled polyester.

However, a few challenges persist in the path of this pioneering endeavor towards circular fashion. The process requires energy-intensive heating and grinding of waste PET before enzymatic treatment. Furthermore, the cost of the process needs to be addressed. Despite these challenges, the potential of enzymatic recycling to scale quickly has ignited extreme interest within the industry.

Enzymatic recycling research witnessed a surge following the key discovery of a bacteria that could metabolically break down PET in 2016. More recent developments include a “super-enzyme” capable of breaking down PET about six times faster than separate enzymes.

Carbios, which has been at the forefront of commercializing enzymatic recycling of plastic, has previously formed successful partnerships with major companies such as L’Oréal, PepsiCo, and Nestlé Waters. A major milestone was reached in September 2021, when Carbios opened a demonstration plant in Clermont-Ferrand, France, where the company has been testing its bio-recycling system. Carbios intends to begin licensing its technology in 2024 and hopes to commence production in the U.S. around 2026, thus bringing circular fashion into the mainstream.

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