When Dr Adam Walker discovered a way of separating polymers by dissolving them, he had little idea that the technology might have the potential to transform the textiles industry, among others. In fact, it wasn’t until he had started his business and completed a training course in business management that he started to see the possible applications of his discovery.
After his previous business went bust, Adam, who, like many of his cohort, rejects the term ‘green chemist’, held onto his ideas most relevant to the recycling industry, reasoning that “eventually the rest of the world will have to catch up with the chemistry and realise that we can’t keep using carbon and oil indefinitely.” That was in 2009.
Meanwhile, Cyndi Rhoades was building Worn Again Technologies, a company with a vision to be part of the solution for eradicating textiles waste. Initially launched as an upcycling venture, Cyndi and her team knew that they wanted to develop a new recycling solution – a means of breaking textiles down to the molecular level. The only problem was they didn’t actually have the science or technological approach to do so.
Then, in 2012, they met Adam – and both parties found what they had been searching for.
Now, seven years later, and with a team of 8 scientists from 6 different countries, a Swiss chemical engineering firm, one of the largest global clothing retailers and a leading luxury brand, Worn Again Technologies is closer to its goal of building its first plant and has expanded its focus from textiles to include plastic bottles and packaging. In Adam’s words, “we’ve gone from being a small company ploughing a lonely furrow to the poster child for circularity”.
The scale of the problem
In 2015, about 55 million tons of polyester and cotton went into textiles worldwide. By 2030, that number is projected to increase by 63%. Every year, about 53 million tons of textiles are buried in landfills or incinerated around the world, with less than 1% of non-wearable textiles being turned back into new ones. WWF states that 20,000 litres of water are needed to produce one kilogram of cotton, the equivalent of a single t-shirt. The catastrophic environmental impact of the industry is undeniable; the need for new recycling methods well established. How is Worn Again Technologies’ solution different to what’s come before?
Adam is keen to explain.
“The bulk of recycling for textile and other forms of polymer waste uses mechanical recycling. This method involves doing a basic separation on waste plastic using mechanical approaches: chopping it up as it is, melting it, and re-extruding it. The problem with mechanical recycling is that it doesn’t separate out all of the impurities that are with the product at the end of its life, like dyes and stabilisers. This reduces the quality of the product, meaning you can’t produce something to go back into the supply chain at high value.
“Chemical recycling, on the other hand, allows you to separate, decontaminate and extract the reusable raw materials at a degree of purity comparable to virgin resources, like polyester made from virgin oil and cellulose from cotton (this can displace the use of virgin cotton, which requires a lot of land, water and pesticides to produce).
At the same time, our goal with the industrial process is to produce high quality polyester and cellulose that that are also competitive in price to virgin resources, a huge leap forward that will enable a widescale solution to replace the use of virgin raw materials.
“With our chemical recycling process, we’re breaking the components down, purifying them and restoring them back to virgin equivalent quality to go back into supply chains as new.”
He pauses, before deciding to use a more relatable metaphor.
“It’s a bit like making a cup of tea. If you want to separate the caffeine and the flavours from tea leaves, you put them in water. The water dissolves the caffeine and flavours, extracting it into a liquid that you can drink, and you throw the tea leaves away. We do the same with textiles. We put them into a liquid which extracts what we want – in our case that’s the pure cellulose from cotton and polyester – and leaving behind the contaminants and impurities that reduce the value of the product if they were to stay in. This has the advantage of being a lot of simpler and cheaper than other types of chemical recycling, which require ‘depolymerisation’, but it produces a product of the same quality as virgin equivalent polyester at a competitive price. There’s no green premium.”
After six years in the R&D phase and investment from brands including H&M and Kering, Worn Again Technologies launched its optimisation phase of developments in April 2018, working with industrial partners to design and build an operational plant, a prospect about which Adam is, understandably, excited. “To see something fully operational and working cost-effectively will be a real validation of everything I’ve been doing for 20 years.”
Partnering to create change
While Worn Again Technologies has made huge strides since Cyndi founded the company in 2005, it’s clear that there are still notable challenges ahead when it comes to actually scaling and implementing their methodology. “There are lots of different promising technologies being trialled alongside each other” says Adam, “and proving what works requires input from a lot of different stakeholders: governments, national and international authorities, private industry. We are providing a solution to a global societal challenge, so we’ll be partnering with a range of strategic partners and organisations to make that happen.”
Worn Again Technologies have long been aware of the fact that they can’t achieve their mission alone; Cyndi and her team have been cultivating relationships with potential partners for years. “Since the beginning of our technology developments, we have made a conscious effort to engage with brands and the supply chain, educating them in what our technology will enable and encouraging them to engage in a real solution that can solve the huge industry challenge of textile waste”, she emphasises. “Having them involved today is also integral to illustrating the market pull for this type of technology.”
H&M and Kering are Worn Again Technologies’ most significant and visible supporters, acting as ‘Founding Pioneer Members’ of the technology since 2013. In May, the company has just launched a programme inviting in new Pioneer Members in an effort to bring the global apparel and textile industry closer to their development, including ASICS, Sympatex, Dibella and Dhana Inc. Benefits will include preferential access to the first industrial outputs from the first Worn Again Technologies plant.
The role of the consumer
In the last year there has been a significant shift of consumer sentiment away from plastic, fuelled by the ‘Attenborough effect’ in the wake of his series, Blue Planet II, which led to a 53% drop in single-use plastic in the UK. Consumers are taking a more active role in conquering plastic waste by putting pressure on brands to take more responsibility for working standards and the environmental impact of their production activities. However, as Cyndi emphasises, we need to do more.
“As we move towards a ‘circular’ future, where old textiles become the ‘feedstock’ for making new textiles, consumers will play a crucial role as the suppliers of this feedstock back into the industry. To increase collected volumes, consumers will need to up their game and prevent all textiles, from clothing to towels, sheets and curtains, from going to landfill or incineration by returning them into collection systems.”
As long as consumers are supported in the return of their end-of-use garments into collection systems, she assures us, processes like the Worn Again Technologies system will be able, eventually, to return them back into supply chains to become new fibre, textiles and garments.
Building a circular future
With a growing network and fast-developing technology, Cyndi, Adam and the Worn Again Technologies team show no signs of slowing down, as the reality of enabling circularity in the global textiles industry becomes increasingly closer.
“Our ambition is to reach at least 40 plants operating at 50,000 tonnes per year by 2029, with output of over 2 million tonnes of polyester and cellulose from cotton to go back into the global textiles industry as raw materials for new products”, Cyndi says. “We can’t do this alone and it will require the galvanisation of leaders around the world to make it happen, from brands and suppliers to plant operators and even government. Global change at this scale is a super exciting thing to be a part of.”
What would success look like for Worn Again Technologies?
“Success for us will in the first instance, be the launch of a first plant, followed by the next 39 plants. At that stage, when we achieve our target of 40 industrial plants, we will be well on our way in transitioning the world away from the use of virgin raw materials to a circular resources world. That would be success.”
How can the Conduit community get involved?
Worn Again Technologies is currently enlisting global investors and strategic and delivery partners who can support on executing our ambition of eradicating bottles and textiles waste. Anyone who can contribute to this vision is welcome to join forces. Please contact Cyndi Rhoades for more information.
Cyndi Rhoades and the Worn Again Technologies team were interviewed as members of The Conduit community.