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This Startup is Turning Banana Peels into Textiles (and H&M and Levi’s Are Interested)

Looking to sell clothing with real “a-peel?” Try making them out of bananas.

That’s the conceit behind Circular Systems, a materials-science startup that wants to turn food crop waste like pineapple leaves, sugarcane pulp, hemp and flax stalks and, yes, banana peels into high-value textiles for the fashion industry.

Such agricultural castoffs are often burned or left to rot, according to Isaac Nichelson, CEO of the California-based firm. The first route generates carbon dioxide, the second, methane. Both are greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change on an already-warming planet, scientists say.

Capturing these waste streams, on the other hand, presents economic opportunities, not only for the smallholder farmers who can turn their agricultural byproducts into additional revenue, but also the apparel industry, which can shift its reliance on costly (and often toxic) petrochemicals and shrinking natural resources.

Circular Systems’ “low-cost, closed-loop” proprietary system, also known as the Agraloop Bio-Refinery, can help brands and retailers pivot toward more sustainable sourcing and production while “enriching the local communities,” Nichelson said.

“The Agraloop will kick-off a new paradigm for natural fiber by levering food crop waste for textile fiber production,” Nichelson told the H&M Foundation, which awarded the company a $350,000 Global Change Award grant in March. “We seek to help our industry begin to decouple from cotton as the world’s dominant natural fiber resource.”

The grant will allow Circular Systems to scale up its production, optimize its technology and produce the first commercial Agraloop BioFibre textiles, he said.

Besides the Agraloop, Circular Systems is also recycling textile waste through something it calls the “Texloop.” There’s plenty of grist for its mill, the company said: An average of 16 percent of all textiles end up as cutting-floor scraps during production and nearly 85 percent of all used clothing is destined for landfills.

Through its Orbital Hybrid Yarn technology, it can transform a blend of recycled and sustainable fibers into yarns that are low piling, high strength and moisture wicking, Circular Systems added.

H&M isn’t the only major brand to have its eye on Circular Systems’ work. In June, Nichelson participated as a fellow in the second iteration of the Levi Strauss & Co. Collaboratory, an intensive three-day workshop, conducted by the denim giant, that promotes projects designed to reduce the climate impact of the apparel industry.