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Could Decomposition Help With Fashion’s Textile-Waste Problem?

More than 92 million metric tons of textile waste are created every year, clogging up landfills and incinerators or spilling into the environment. The Biomimicry Institute, a nonprofit that promotes nature-inspired innovation, thinks that decomposition could offer a solution.

On Tuesday, the Montana-based organization received a 2.5-million-euro ($2.8-million) grant from the Laudes Foundation to lead Design for Decomposition, a two-year initiative to test-drive new technologies that convert used clothing into biocompatible raw materials, similar to the way leaves break down in nature to create dirt.

“Nature has primary producers, consumers and decomposers, and all rely on dispersal entropy. Without all three, there is no cadence to life,” Beth Rattner, executive director at the Biomimicry Institute, said in a statement. “If the fashion sector is going to be a force for good on the planet, it has to follow the same laws of nature. The North Star is not a shirt that becomes another shirt, but a shirt that subsidizes the regenerative fashion system we all know is possible.”

Together with the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel, the Yale Center for Green Chemistry and Engineering, the Metabolic Institute, the OR Foundation and Celery Design, the Biomimicry Institute plans to pilot several different decomposition technologies in Ghana’s capital of Accra, whose bustling Kantamanto market receives 15 million items of secondhand clothing every week, along with a city with a more established waste-management infrastructure such as Amsterdam or Berlin. As this is going on, Yale researchers will be taking a “hard look” at what really decomposes and how.

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“Determining the rate or speed at which molecules degrade in the environment is of crucial importance to assess risks to our own health and health of the environment,” said Paul Anastas, director of the Yale Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering. “While experiments to assess the biodegradation of chemicals when in the environment have been developed and are routinely carried out, these have several limitations that make it hard to predict the fate of chemicals and materials in the ‘real’ environment. Our goal is to close that gap.”

The Biomimicry Insitute says that a new approach is needed to tackle a problem that is growing—literally. The industry pumps out 100 billion garments each year, according to McKinsey & Company. Because of the rise of fast fashion, people are buying more clothing but hanging onto them half as long as they did two decades ago. The European Environmental Agency estimates that Europeans dispose of an average of 11 kilograms of clothing annually. The typical American is said to toss more than three times as much. While the vast majority of these castoffs are landfilled or incinerated, a significant amount is shipped to places such as Accra, where landfill sites are overloaded with unsalable pieces.

“Demonstrating that decomposition can put fashion back into natural resource cycles will be a powerful proof point for fashion and its allied industries, and a bold step towards reversing the environmental damage the industry has created thus far,” said Anita Chester, head of materials at Laudes Foundation. “We are thrilled to support this consortium led by Biomimicry Institute, and eagerly await the results of their game-changing pilots to scale bio-compatible solutions for the fashion industry at large.”

One major consideration for the project is the problem of microplastics that slough off polyester, nylon and other petrochemical-derived materials. Synthetic fibers make up more than two-thirds (69 percent) of all materials used in textiles today, according to petrochemical analytics firm Tecnon OrbiChem. Then there’s the fact that nearly all of today’s clothing involves toxic dyes, finishes or processes. Design for Decomposition has engaged toxicology partners from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, University of Ghana and Yale to screen all technologies “through the lens.”

“The end-of-life management of waste is a huge and complex problem that sits at the interface of the biosphere and the technosphere. We must find alternative pathways for handling the myriad of natural and synthetic materials embodied in the products we consume,” said Savanna Browne-Wilkinson, a researcher at the Metabolic Institute. “This is a critical and under-represented part of the current discourse on industrial transformation and will play an important role in how we design a regenerative, inclusive and circular bioeconomy.”