Fast fashion is killing the planet. These chemists are fighting back

Your clothes are mostly plastic. These chemists have figured out how to recycle them.
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Our clothes don’t die — or, at least the non-biodegradable textiles that they’re made of don’t usually get a second life.

“Textiles are these complex mixtures of different materials,” says Moby Ahmed, the CTO of Ambercycle, a textile recycling startup. Examples are cotton, polyester, spandex, nylon, and acrylic — so basically, most of the materials that make up the clothes in your closet. 

In 2018 alone, 11.3 million tons of those textile mixtures waste ended up in landfills, the EPA says. And the lion’s share of that waste comes from clothing — over a billion garments worth.

Fast fashion — a term used to describe an industry that relies on fast manufacturing and styles that quickly go out of vogue — is reliant on these textiles. A June 2021 report by London’s Royal Society for Arts (RSA) found that more than 80% of some offerings on websites contained new plastic in them, and despite recent media attention, clothing companies are still slow to adopt truly recycled garments into their product lines. 

While there are clothes made from recycled polyester, calling them “recycled” is a bit disingenuous — in fashion, most polyester recycling pulls the plastic from water bottles, not clothing. And according to Ambercycle, the mechanical method of recycling textiles, where they are ripped to shreds and re-used, can’t untangle those complex mixtures and shortens the fibers, which limits their reuse value.

Ahmed and Ambercycle CEO Shay Sethi are deploying a different, proprietary form of recycling, one that separates materials at the molecular level. It’s called chemical recycling, and the technique allows Ambercycle to pull plastic fibers from textiles, leaving the fibers unharmed and ready to be used in new clothes.

“Chemical recycling is kind of the holy grail of fashion.”

Shay Sethi

Ambercycle’s first target? Polyester.

Polyester and the Rise of Plastics

“For the past 4,000 years, our clothing has been mostly one material,” Sethi says, referring to cotton. In the 12th century, those clothes were recycled into paper. But growing populations with new and unique needs required different types of textiles.

In the mid-1900s, fully synthetic textiles nylon and polyester burst onto the scene, emerging from chemistry labs to compete with materials which have clothed humanity for centuries — cotton, wool, silk. 

“As early as 1940, the invention of polyester changed the fashion industry,” Sethi says. 

Polyester is a type of plastic, and is usually derived from petroleum. (That’s right: you’re likely wearing some oil.)

“They’re resilient fibres, relatively inexpensive and reliable,” Textile Exchange’s Liesl Truscott told Vogue. “Whereas cotton and other natural fibres may be a little bit more vulnerable to availability or weather conditions and climate change.”

As Truscott points out, the synthetic fibers which can be so damaging to the environment ironically help us explore that environment. Synthetic fibers are lightweight but strong, and they add stretch and moisture-wicking properties popular in technical clothing, activewear, and underwear. 

Polyester itself is cheap, resilient — too resilient — and low maintenance, it was first marketed to the American public by highlighting its anti-wrinkle properties. And since its parabolic popularity in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, polyester has evolved into a versatile fabric.

By 2004, polyester had overtaken cotton in popularity. According to a research report from Textile Exchange, It accounted for a little over half of the world’s fiber production in 2019, with 58 million metric tons of the material produced. Recycled polyester accounted for only 14% of that massive market in 2019.

The lack of recycled polyester material could be because it’s often blended with cotton and other natural fibers to increase their durability. 

“It’s probably one of the worst options because you’ve blended a natural material with a synthetic,” Truscott told Vogue. 

“In terms of being able to recycle it and pull those materials apart for different recycling streams, it’s pretty impossible at the moment.”

That’s where Ambercycle comes in.

Recycling Polyester

While in college, Sethi and Ahmed developed their chemical recycling process.

“What we’re essentially doing is purifying and separating polyester from blended textile waste,” Ahmed says. 

It works like this: textiles on their last thread are gathered by Ambercycle from donation organizations, businesses, government collaborators — even plucked from a dumpster. All of their hardware like zippers and buttons are removed, and the textiles are shredded.

The shredded material goes through a series of reactors, where chemical processes separate the polyester from natural materials, dyes, and whatever other components make up the fabric. The process leaves behind that cellulose waste, which is picked up to be recycled or regenerated by Ambercycle’s partners, and the difficult-to-recycle dyes. Those dyes can be burned for energy, but the company says it is actively seeking more ways to work with the waste.

The leftover, refined polyester is then purified and made into pellets, which Ambercycle calls cycora.

Those cycora pellets are spun into fibers, made into clothes, and hopefully can go through this life cycle again and again, leading to a circular fashion economy — which is a challenge in itself.

“Getting a garment from someone’s closet back into the apparel supply chain is a very, very tricky thing to do.”

Shay Sethi

Ambercycle is actively seeking ways to ensure cycora clothes are recycled, including digital passports that can provide customers with information on what to do with their clothing when it’s past its life. 

Infinite Textiles

Cheap and readily available fast fashion, and the synthetic fibers it’s made from, is unlikely to shrink in scale; if anything, Sethi says, clothes containing polyester and similar fibers are only going to increase their market share at an even faster rate. 

The focus, then, has to be on turning these old materials into something new.

“Our vision is, within the next three years, to be producing 50,000 tons per year of cycora,” Ahmed says. 

That vision will hopefully eventually establish what Ambercycle calls an ecosystem for infinite textiles, where materials like polyester are removed from the cycle of waste and reused, over and over.

Beyond catwalks and couture, luxury or fast fashion, clothing comes down to story, Sethi says, and more and more stories now are being driven by sustainability.

“Because it’s one of these things that literally touches every single person,” Sethi says.

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