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Plastic Waste Upcycler Bionic Yarn Shifts Focus to Products’ Future

“We feel like the real quantum shift in the public’s thinking about sustainability is that it’s got to be cool. It’s got to be cutting edge. That’s what the public buys into and I think that’s the real challenge that we face as a society: making sustainability cool,” Tim Coombs, co-founder of Bionic Yarn, a company that turns plastic waste into high-performance thread and fabric, said recently at Cradle to Cradle’s Product Symposium at the Conrad Hilton Hotel in New York.

Given that Pharrell Williams (musician, producer, fashion mogul and all-around awesome guy) is Bionic’s creative director and an investor, being “cool” isn’t something the business has to necessarily brood on.

But offering apparel brands an eco-friendly raw material that cleans up communities and plastic pollution doesn’t mean the entire manufacturing process and its resources are fully sustainable. “Even if we’re doing great things, we can be better,” Coombs shared.

That’s why, when Bionic joined the Fashion Positive initiative as a leadership partner last year as it worked toward Cradle to Cradle certification, it decided to delve deeper into its supply chain practices.

“We found some great things, we found some not so great things, but when we found great things it was amazing,” he said, noting, “We found out just by chance that our major yarn supplier is 50 percent solar-powered. It wasn’t even something we were marketing or thinking. They’re a Chinese mill, which China for the most part gets a pretty bad rap, and they were an exemplary model to some extent of what manufacturing is.”

On the flip side, the company had a problem with a fiber producer that refused to submit a chemical list.

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“That’s what you run into all over the industry,” he shrugged. “We’re not a mega-giant company that commands billions of dollars in business from our factories where we can just demand things. This [certification] process for us was very much about convincing.”

He added, “We had to convince [our factories] to understand what we wanted to do and the value in this certificate that Cradle to Cradle offers.”

In addition to optimizing its supply chain, Bionic was urged by the organization’s co-founder, William McDonough, to think about the next life of its products.

“Bionic makes a wide number of yarns, some of them are blends. We’ll blend natural fiber like cotton, wool, etcetera, with polyester which is essentially PET plastic that we recover and then we manufacture other yarns that are pure synthetic,” Coombs explained. “The ones that are pure synthetic are in line 100 percent with Cradle to Cradle’s philosophy; they can be melted back down and so on. However, even then, it’s just a yarn. We could sell pure synthetic yarn to a denim maker and then they can just weave it with cotton together and make cotton denim and then you’ve blended it at the fabric stage and not at the yarn stage.”

For the uninitiated, once fibers have been mixed together, as in the case of cotton-poly, it’s not possible to separate them for recycling purposes. (The technology is in development but it’s not yet commercialized.)

“Even if we pushed the message that it’s not right to casually blend natural and synthetic fibers, if that message gets through, it’s still going to take 30 years to slowly file that use of the blending down until it doesn’t exist,” he continued. “In that interim period, either you deal with it, or you don’t.”

And Bionic is squaring up to the challenge, developing a process that involves shredding end-of-life garments made from blends, breaking them down to fiber and then re-spinning that back into yarn and fabric using various techniques and methods to upgrade it.

Coombs noted, “There are various hurdles we’ve ran into over the past year. The project is still ongoing. What was important to me is that it pushed us to address another problem which is out there in the industry and it focused us to be creative about how to solve it.”