As the fashion industry plods, heavy-footed, toward a more sustainable future, many brands are looking to solve the pervasive problem of what to do with garments that have overstayed their welcome in wearers’ closets. The weighty issue of textile waste has plagued the sector for decades, with garments piling up in landfills and choking the Earth’s ecology in the process.
Clothing, like most products that end up in the trash, is rarely truly biodegradable. And it doesn’t help that brands have heavily relied on synthetic, polymer-based fabrics like polyesters that can languish in landfills for lifetimes.
One Los Angeles-based startup is attempting to thwart the sector’s adverse impact with an innovative process for recycling these materials. Ambercycle, the brainchild of Shay Sethi and Moby Ahmed, offers a science-based solution that transforms post-consumer polyester into entirely new—and recyclable—fibers.
The former college roommates were struck by the magnitude of the planet’s plastic waste problem while studying molecular biology in the Bay Area five years ago. Post-graduation, they set up a small lab in San Francisco where they could investigate the issue further. Sethi and Ahmed dialed in on textiles as a major culprit, with the fashion sector’s penchant for rampant overproduction resulting in about 100 billion garments made across the globe each year, according to figures from the Wall Street Journal.
But recycling clothing is no easy feat—otherwise, the industry would have already developed a circular solution to keep these unwanted goods from ending up in the trash years ago. “We found that the problem was that most plastics are mixed with other things, and that makes them hard to recycle,” Sethi said. Polymers are often spun together with cottons and other natural and synthetic fibers—and a long list of dyes and additives—making it nearly impossible to isolate a single material element from a finished garment.
The idea for Ambercycle stemmed from a simple, yet monumental, question, Sethi said. “Could we separate those things at the molecular level?”
The partners worked to build out a chemical process for pulling apart blended garments and separating polyester fibers for recycling. The starter fabrics are put through a set of reactors to segregate the polymer into a resin, which then comes out in chip form on the back end. That material is the starting point for new polyester fibers, Sethi said, which are extruded from the recycled plastic pellets.
In the beginning, Ambercycle’s fibers didn’t hold up to the same degree of wear-and-tear as their virgin counterparts. But after refining the process and experimenting with fiber thickness over many batches of testing, Sethi said the company is confident that its secondhand PET can withstand the same pressures as other fibers on the market. What’s more, the product is designed to be truly circular, meaning that Ambercycle’s fibers can be put through the same recycling process in perpetuity, Sethi claims.
“A lot of brands obviously have been super interested in this, but there needs to be a desire for someone to buy this material” beyond sustainability, Sethi said. Brands need to feel that recycled polyester is “actually an improvement” on the fabrics they’ve been using if Ambercycle is going to bring the solution to scale as he and Ahmed hope to do.
It also needs to fit into their established supply chains, and Sethi is confident that the company’s current iteration of fibers is “drop-in replaceable with existing materials, so there’s no market risk” in making the switch.
So far, the interest from brands—and would-be recyclers—has buoyed their confidence. According to Sethi, Ambercycle has done little by way of advertising and has engaged in selective outreach to local and national labels. Still, the company fields inquiries daily from parties interested in curbing their polyester waste output through material innovation. And there has been no shortage of eager locals willing to dump their unwanted textiles and used clothing at the factory’s door, or even mail them across state lines.
“People show up at our office, and there are actually a lot of people sending us materials completely unsolicited,” Sethi said. “We also have companies that deal in secondhand clothing and post-consumer garments that are either donations or returns, and they have to find a place for them.”
Los Angeles, with its thriving garment sector, has provided an especially engaged contingent of donators to the company’s mission. It also offers a healthy ecosystem of brands, designers, mills and manufacturers—an optimal backdrop for the company’s home base and “intellectual capital.” Ambercycle has made inroads with fabric mills that now have the ability to offer a circular synthetic option to brand clients, and brands who find the solution through their own research can collaborate with the company on finding suitable downstream partners.
The company’s East L.A. operations are comprised of a 3,000-square-foot plant that processes about 220 pounds of clothing each day, Sethi said, but Ambercycle is actively plotting an expansion to Texas in the coming months that would allow for the recycling of hundreds of thousands of garments each month. “We want to copy and paste that model all over the world over the next five years,” he added.
“Brand interest is a proxy for customer interest,” Sethi said, “and customer interest is only increasing.” In recent years, sustainability has become an almost hackneyed buzzword in the fashion industry, but Ambercycle is betting that the appetite for real change is not a passing trend.
“Interest isn’t decreasing, and it’s not cyclical,” he added. “It’s only moving in one direction.” Forward.