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Promising or Problematic? Agri-Waste Fibers Emerge as an Eco Alternative

Waste not, want not. More than a maxim for picky children, the phrase has become a kind of raison d’etre for a new breed of textile manufacturer that is spinning agricultural castoffs into business gold. Certainly the strategy has its environmental appeal.

Millions of tons of fibrous crop residues are chucked after every harvest, according to Isaac Nichelson, co-founder and CEO of Circular Systems, a California-based materials science startup and one of Sourcing Journal’s 2019 Sustaining Voices honorees.

Inedible and therefore devoid of intrinsic value, banana trunks, pineapple leaves, sugarcane barks and oilseed hemp and flax stalks are typically burned or left behind to rot, generating greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (in the former case) or methane (in the latter) that exacerbate climate change on a melting planet.

Circular Systems wants to change that. Its Agraloop Bio-Refinery is turning agricultural waste into high-value textiles without the prodigious amounts of harsh chemicals, water and energy that a more conventional viscose system demands. (The resulting Agraloop BioFibre, as Nichelson is keen to underscore, is not viscose-rayon but rather a natural fiber that demonstrates there is no waste in nature.)

Instead of liquifying wood pulp into a cellulose soup, Agraloop uses proprietary “clean chemistry” to dissolve the lignins and pectins that lock plant cell walls in place and extract the remaining filament. Eventually, all of that biochemistry, plus the bio-energy that powers the process, will stem from the plants themselves, creating a truly closed-loop system where inputs are recaptured and recirculated and the only effluent is a natural fertilizer that can be fed back to promote soil health.

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Nanollose, a biotech firm from Australia and another 2019 Sustaining Voices honoree, has agricultural surplus on its mind, too. Its tentpole product is Nullarbor, a fiber that it bills as the world’s first tree-free viscose-rayon. In December, Nanollose feted the world’s first tree-free viscose-rayon garment: a sweater knit using 3-D technology.

Eliminating harsh chemicals altogether, the company employs the non-genetically modified bacteria Acetobacter xylinum to convert sugars in coconut byproducts into microbial cellulose, which it then dries and spins into 100 percent biodegradable fiber using a patented process that uses “very little” land, water or energy and can take as little as 10 days, according to CEO and managing director Alfie Germano.

Like Circular Systems, Nanollose cultivates a “good stuff in, good stuff out” approach. The only bio-waste that Nullarbor begets is acetic acid, otherwise known as vinegar, a byproduct of the fermentation process that can be filtered and used in applications such as cleaning products. Another output? Water, which Nanollose is working on returning to the system in a closed-loop manner.

Is the world of fashion ready for these alternative fabrics? It may not have much choice in the manner. Consumers who have been paying attention will have noticed brands testing the waters: Salvatore Ferragamo’s citrus-byproduct-derived Orange Fiber clothing, for example, or Hugo Boss’s men’s faux-leather sneakers made with waste pineapple leaves. H&M followed suit this month by plying its ninth Conscious Exclusive collection with both Orange Fiber and Piñatex textiles, along with an ethylene-vinyl acetate foam produced using algae.

These unusual materials might even extend to H&M’s main assortment someday, much like Tencel, organic cotton and recycled polyester have. “With our Conscious Exclusive collections, we want to show how sustainable materials can be turned into the most beautiful pieces,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal over email.

Not everyone is embracing this trend, however. Because of all the intellectual property that is involved, many of the companies welcoming agricultural waste as an input have to be opaque, almost by necessity. And that troubles people like Rebecca Burgess, executive director of Fibershed, a California-based organization that works with farmers to develop regional and regenerative fiber systems.

“While we can just plug in maybe a new fiber, the question is how does this fiber have to be metabolized in a supply chain and what are the life-cycle impacts of that metabolization process?” she asked.

Cotton and wool may seem terribly mundane, but they don’t require a huge amount of processing before they can be carded, spun or woven. Nor does it require a huge leap of the imagination to recognize them for what they are in the field or on the animal.

“People give cotton such a bad rap but it does come off the plant and it’s ready to be a T-shirt,” Burgess said. “The further something is from a T-shirt when you pick it up in your own hand, from a texture standpoint, from a strength standpoint, then the more chemistry you know you’re going to need. Are we thinking about the toxic chemistry that needs to, in many cases, join these supply chains to make this really wearable fiber?”

For her part, Linda Greer, a former scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council who holds a PhD in environmental toxicology, would like to see some life-cycle-assessment data about the use of agricultural waste as fiber. Is turning, say, corn waste into clothing better than using it to distill ethanol, for instance?

There is a sort of lack of professionalism in the way that a lot of these innovations are introduced,” she said. “And what I mean by that is that environmental professionals, such as myself, we’re looking for reduced carbon, reduced water, reduced chemicals and  reduced deforestation and biodiversity impacts. And so these innovations need to be presenting themselves in a quantitative way to show us that they’re better than conventional approaches. And I’m not seeing that.”

That’s not to say that Greer is against the idea of unconventional fibers. She just wants to see what lies beyond the “quirky, next little glittery thing” and the “razzle dazzle” that accompanies their introduction. “Fundamentally, it’s a good idea to look at agricultural waste as a building block for fiber,” she said. “But I need to see the numbers.”

On the other hand, Nicole Rycroft, founder and executive director of Canopy, a conservation nonprofit from Canada, doesn’t see the ancient and endangered forests surviving without a significant infusion of so-called “next-generation” fibers as an alternative to conventional viscose-rayon. More than 150 million trees are logged every year for viscose production, she said, and fewer than 20 percent of the world’s ancient and endangered forests remain in intact swaths expansive enough to support biological diversity. By 2020, she expects viscose production to double from 2013 levels.

“Next-generation solutions, such as fabrics made from straw, recycled clothing or microbial cellulose, are critical to keeping our climate stable and carbon- and species-rich forests standing,” she said.

Rycroft predicts that fabrics with 50 percent next-generation content will be on shelves “en masse” within the next five years thanks to the efforts of brands like H&M and Stella McCartney, as well as technologies like Nanollose and Bast Fiber Processing (previously known as Crailer).

“They’re also going to be foundational to a vibrant fashion sector in the years to come,” she added.

For more on fashion’s march toward a more environmentally sound future and the 2019 Sustaining Voices honorees, visit