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How Stella McCartney Will ‘Pioneer a New Type of Polyester’

Stella McCartney has partnered with recycling startup Protein Evolution Inc. (PEI) to advance sustainable fashion. With the collective goal of eliminating plastic waste from the fashion industry and providing textile manufacturers with a high-quality, circular solution using PEI’s technology, the partnership wants to transform nylon and polyester waste into good-as-new fibers.

“The horrific amount of fast fashion produced that then goes to landfill is truly shocking, both from the natural resources used to the sheer quantity wasted. We must act today to protect our planet for tomorrow, and circular and regenerative solutions offer an optimistic look at the future of fashion,” McCartney said. “Through our partnership with Protein Evolution, we hope to pioneer a new type of polyester from old materials. Establishing climate goals is one thing, taking meaningful steps toward a more sustainable future is what truly matters.”

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, the fashion industry accounts for up to 10 percent of global carbon dioxide output—more than international flights and shipping combined.

The problem is that polyester, a fossil fuel material derived from oil, is being used at record levels to produce new clothing—and 87 percent of used apparel is incinerated or sent to a landfill. All of this is happening while less than 1 percent of clothing collected for recycling is turned back into new textiles or garments, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

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Protein Evolution wants to change the paradigm.

“Our proprietary biological recycling process has the power to enable circularity efforts across the textile industry,” Scott Stankey, PEI co-founder and chief technology officer, said. “By partnering with Stella McCartney, we are able to test our platform in a real-world setting and collectively learn how to seamlessly integrate PEI’s technology into existing manufacturing processes. This collaboration will ultimately demonstrate for the first time how complex fabric types, such as nylon and polyester blends, can be fully reused to make new plastic material in a low-energy, cost-effective way.” 

PEI co-founders Connor Lynn and Scott Stankey. (Greg M. Cooper / Protein Evolution)

Beginning in 2023, PEI—using its biological recycling process that helps break down used clothing into the building blocks of new polyester material—will process leftover polyester and blended fabric from Stella McCartney’s collections, which will be transformed into virgin-quality fibers. From there, Stella McCartney will work with PEI to see how these new fibers could be used to produce new, infinitely recyclable products.

“We’re honored to partner with Stella McCartney on this ambitious and hopefully groundbreaking effort,” Connor Lynn, PEI co-founder and chief business officer, said. “Stella’s brand is synonymous with sustainability, circularity and innovation. Together we’re setting out to accomplish something that’s never been done at an industrial scale before, and we’re just getting started.” 

PEI really is just getting started. The Yale alums launched the startup in October of 2021 and earlier this year raised an initial $20 million fundraising round led by New York-based venture capital firm Collaborative Fund’s climate-focused Collab SOS, which is in partnership with McCartney. Additional funding came from New Climate Ventures, Eldridge, Nextrans, and Good Friends, which is backed by the founders of Warby Parker, Allbirds and Harry’s.

“The ethos of [Collab SOS] was to invest in companies that are better for the planet but don’t require sacrifice on cost or quality from the consumer, which was kind of exactly the ethos that we’re building in,” Lynn said. “Where we are building a more sustainable way for consumers to have access to—whether its polyester or more traditional forms of plastic that aren’t derived from fossil fuels—making sure that those materials are still accessible and they don’t have to change their habits in order to access them.”

But how exactly does this biological recycling process work? Well, Stankey compares the process to a beloved home-baked treat.

“You can think of plastic waste, textile waste, like a chocolate-chip cookie,” he said. “What our technology does is, in goes a half-eaten chocolate chip cookie. No wants to deal with it, it’s low quality. But what outcomes is the ingredients for a new cookie, so the flour, the eggs, the sugar. And then what we do is we send those ingredients back to the cookie manufacturers. If you were to put [the ingredients and the half-eaten cookie] side by side, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.”

Turning leftovers into like-new ingredients is critical, he said.

“Reason one is that if you can go back to a material that’s the same as new plastic, then people don’t have to change their R&D processes or their manufacturing processes. And consumers who like to wear high-quality clothes or use high-quality water bottles don’t have to sacrifice,” Stankey continued. “The second reason is because those ingredients all come from oil. Today, like 10 percent of the oil [industry] is actually used for making new plastics. And it’s projected to grow dramatically by 20 percent to 2050.”

Data confirms his claims. The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicted that plastics derived from fossil fuels will drive almost half of oil demand by 2050. From 2020 to 2040, BP expects plastic to represent 95 percent of the net oil demand growth.

“So it’s kind of hidden in plain sight. But a huge, huge use of oil is plastic, he said. “So the more we can reuse that plastic, the less we have to tap into oil to produce it.”

PEI, in a sense, takes Darwinism into its own hands by growing an enzyme better and stronger than its predecessor.

PEI conducts tests with various plastic waste materials and its engineered enzymes. (Greg M. Cooper / Protein Evolution)

“Enzymes are what digest food in your stomach; enzymes, for us, are what digest plastic waste in our bioreactor,” Stankey said.

The process is threefold. “The first thing we do is engineer the enzyme. Bacteria evolved to make an enzyme that used plastic as a food source—which is pretty incredible when you think about it because plastic hasn’t been around that long,” he said. “Nature evolved [so that] it takes, like, three months to break down plastic. If we waited another 100,000 years, we’d probably have a really effective bacteria that could eat through a lot of plastic. But we don’t have time to wait. So what we do is we bring that evolution process into the laboratory and simulate evolution, making different mutations that we think will make the enzyme better, and we do that process over and over again until the enzyme is in what we call industrial conditions.”

That’s the first part. The second part requires PEI to grow that enzyme in a fermentation tank, similar to how laundry detergents are made. This low-cost, low-emissions industrial fermentation process doesn’t harm the environment and the cells produced can be used as nutrition for cows. Next, PEI uses the enzyme in the cookie-analogy process to break down nylon and polyester textiles.

“There definitely are competitors in the space but what it comes down to is, when you look at the technique of using enzymes, it’s extremely promising,” Stankey said.

Competitors include French innovator Carbios, which developed a biology-based solution that uses enzymes to break down PET plastics and fibers. The biotech startup partnered with On, Puma, Salomon and Patagonia earlier this year to develop solutions that will enhance the recyclability and circularity of their products. Circular solution Re:lastane has created a closed-loop recycling process that uses an enzyme to separate blended polyester and elastane, and was featured this year as one of the five startups selected for H&M Foundation’s Global Change Award, receiving a shared grant of 1 million euros (roughly $1.06 million) and access to a GCA Impact Accelerator. Worn Again Technologies completed its latest funding round in October, raising 27.6 million pounds (approximately $30.45 million) to support the construction of its textile recycling demonstration plant in Winterthur, Switzerland.

Stankey believes PEI’s process has a leg up on its rivals.

“It’s safe, it’s scalable, and provides a low-cost solution where we think that we’ll be able to differentiate ourselves and honestly, why we’re pushing so hard, is because we think we can address these hard-to-recycle materials, these textiles,” he continued.

And that’s where the partnership with Stella McCartney comes into play.

“It was after understanding from Stella and her team really the crux of what’s happening in the fashion industry is that blended materials are a real problem,” Lynn said. “So this R&D collaboration spawned out of a coexisting hope to solve that problem. The knowledge [McCartney] has of this space is very deep. It’s really an ideal partner for us where we can leverage her supply chain relationships or relationships beyond just polyester but also in nylon, to understand how these materials are being blended today, what additives or other sorts of products are going into those materials, and then translate that into the research that we’re doing in New Haven, Connecticut, to understand the best way to tackle the problem using the technology that we’ve built.”