The oceans are choked with discarded fishing nets, or ghost nets, that are estimated to kill 300,000 whales, dolphins and seals each year. It’s a grotesque and avoidable toll on nature, and one that Giulio Bonazzi, CEO of Aquafil, hopes to reduce using an unlikely ally – fashion.
The Italian firm is pioneering the use of “ghost” or discarded fishing nets to make a synthetic fabric marketed under the name Econyl that’s currently being used by several apparel brands, including Speedo and California surfer Kelly Slater’s Outerknown.
Last year, Aquafil regenerated more than 5,000 tons of discarded nets at its factory in Slovenia. With the exception of some fish farming nets, which are coated with copper oxide to prevent algae and cannot be used, the company receives the majority of its nets directly from fishermen, or through partnerships with two firms, Healthy Seas and Net-Works.
By breaking down the nets to a molecular level, the plastics are then recreated as yarn in a process the sustainability industry calls recommercialization. “If they know us, they contact us and we pay for the waste. They have to have a motivation to contact us. So they call us from all over. From California, from Australia. We take them from all over the world,” says Bonazzi, a former scuba diver.
The environmental problem of discarded fishing nets, or ghost nets, is well-documented. Some are accidentally lost during storms, or dumped deliberately. By some estimates, ghost netting and other discarded fishing gear makes up 10% of all marine litter. The cost to marine life is devastating.
The National Marine Fisheries Service reports an average of 11 entangled large whales per year from 2000 to 2012 along the US west coast. Between 2002 and 2010, 870 nets recovered from Washington state alone contained more than 32,000 marine animals.
Other initiatives include Fishing for Energy, a partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) Marine Debris Program, Covanta and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Schnitzer Steel to collect old fishing gear and reuse it either in recycling or to produce energy.
Aquafil’s proposition is to turn ocean waste into higher-value products. “If you can reach people with higher income then they’re always ready to pay something more for a product that responds to their needs and to their desires. And everybody wants some kind of exclusive product, and they feel that wasting is no longer connected to luxury.”
But fashion is fickle. Currently the fashion for nostalgia, and for an era before the advent of mass luxury is more apparent than ever. Warnings of a slump have been issued recently by luxury goods companies including Hermès and Richemont and there are fears that the industry could be forced into a fundamental shift in values.
The big question for the luxury market, say analysts, is whether the values of fashion and luxury can begin to acquire values that align with sustainability in a meaningful way.
Of course, the cost of the material is also a factor. And it depends which cost is most important to you. Recommercialized nylon is up to 6% more expensive to produce than new nylon. But creating fibre from recycled nets and carpet waste produces 50% less CO2 than typical, petroleum-based fibre production.
As the luxury industry reports a gloomy outlook, many companies are looking to reconfigure their notions of luxury to meet new consumer ideals around the ideas of recycling, repurposing and reclaiming.
“The more the fashion industry hears about us, the more they call when they need nylon as raw material,” says Bonazzi. Slowly, he says, “we are becoming more conscious and more aware. Of course, we all want to be rich but we also want to live.”
Some of the spirit of “ethical fashion” was on view at the periphery of New York’s fashion week last month where men’s clothing designer Heron Preston staged an event in a department of sanitation salt shed to draw attention to ways New Yorkers can reduce landfill waste, in this instance, by “upcycling” department uniforms into designer clothes.
Orsola de Castro, founder of Fashion Revolution and a leading campaigner for sustainable fashion, says any effort to reduce the environmental cost of clothes production and steer toward closed-loop technology in which 100% of fibres are recycled must be embraced.
“We have created an environmental crisis in the oceans of spectacular degree so any solution that helps us begin to redress the imbalance is a good solution,” she says.
But, she continues: “We’re coming off 25 years of product, product, product. And this is what people understand. It all needs to be seen as a part of a concerted effort to clean up to embrace technology to allow us to enjoy clothes again without necessarily feeling that it’s at the cost of the Earth.”
*This story first appeared on The Guardian
Learn more about the impact of fashion on our oceans here
Everybody’s favourite swimwear brand, Speedo has jumped into bed with Aqualfil to launch the world’s first take-back programme for fabric for the swimwear market.
As a result, the new Speedo PowerFLEX Eco swimwear is made from Aquafil’s 100% upcycled ECONYL nylon, with the take-back programme turning leftover fabric scraps back into raw ECONYL – then new ‘Speedos’.
The scrap fabric would have ended up in landfill. Now, it is being being endlessly recycled, creating a closed-loop manufacturing partnership between the two companies.
“We are challenging apparel manufacturers to be more sustainable and restructure their supply chain to divert waste from landfill,” said Giulio Bonazzi, Aquafil’s chairman and CEO. “Our partnership with Speedo USA shows their commitment to the environment with the take-back program, but also their ingenuity in creating products from materials that can be recycled an infinite number of times.
“They are really helping us close the loop and create a more sustainable manufacturing process.”
In the swimwear industry, post-production fabric waste has not been suitable for traditional recycling due to its complex technical composition. However, Aquafil says it has developed a technology that can turn swimwear fabric and other blended waste materials into new raw nylon. The ECONYL Regeneration System takes manufacturing byproduct waste and nylon materials that have reached the end of their product life – such as abandoned fishing nets and old carpets – and re-engineers them into high-quality ECONYL Nylon 6 for the production of new carpets, sportswear and swimwear.
Now, the regeneration process is being used to separate usable nylon from Speedo’s blended post-production fabric scraps. It is then upcycled into raw nylon fiber that can be made into new PowerFLEX Eco swimwear.
In fact, the new products are made up of 78% ECONYL nylon and 22% Extra Life LYCRA – resulting in fabric that “retains its shape up to ten times longer than traditional swimwear fabrics, is resistant to chlorine, sagging and bagging and is offered in styles designed for both performance and fitness”.
**This story first appeared on 2degrees Network here.
Fibre-based textiles claim to be highly recyclable, but fashion quality controls prevent them from going mainstream
As clothing brands experiment with textile-to-textile recycling models, the emergence of new fabrics built around closed loop processes could help accelerate this progress. Examples of recent innovation in this field include Econyl, X2 Plus, Returnity and SaXcell. Based on the concept of regeneration from the outset, these fibre-based textiles are largely crafted from waste materials and claim to be highly recyclable or reusable, making them suitable for multiple life cycles.
Econyl is a type of nylon manufactured wholly from waste streams that include abandoned fishing nets and carpets. It is billed as a sustainable alternative to Nylon 6, which is traditionally sourced from caprolactam (a derivative of oil). Giulio Bonazzi, CEO of Aquafil, the company behind Econyl, says the clothing industry has been quick to take advantage of Econyl since its launch in 2011.
“Swimwear brands were among the first to invest in the use of Econyl fibres as the majority of their products are made from nylon,” says Bonazzi. “Brands such as Koru Swimwear and Adidas were impressed with our efforts to not only recover derelict fishing nets … but also expand our supply source for post-consumer waste.”
Besides swimwear, Econyl is suitable for the manufacture of sportswear, lingerie and outdoor clothing.
Returnity is a 100% recyclable polyester which is replacing not only traditional polyester, but cotton and wool-based fabrics too. According to Dutch aWEARness, which owns the European license for the product, Returnity fabrics reduce CO2 impact by 73%, waste management by 100% and water usage by 95% compared to cotton.
Returnity is mainly used in the workwear market, where takeback of corporate garments is easier to arrange. Dutch aWEARness founder Rien Otto believes the potential is there to widen its appeal: “Extension to the fashion market is possible, in particular in areas where garments are polyester-based, such as sportswear, outdoor wear and jackets.”
Yarns appropriate for consumer fashion fabrics are already under development, Rien adds: “We see that more and more brands are looking for new production methods, new collections and materials. At this moment, we are sharing our knowledge with different brands that want to change their way of working.”
With their Garment Collecting and Shwopping in-store clothing takeback programmes, H&M and Marks & Spencer (M&S) respectively are both keeping a watchful eye on such activities. H&M’s environmental sustainability coordinator Carola Tembe says the company’s long term goal is to find a solution for reusing and recycling all textile fibres and to use yarns made out of collected textiles in its products.
“There are a lot of different exciting projects and research going on in this field, and we aim to find a scalable solution for textile-to-textile recycling with an outcome equal, or hopefully even better, than virgin fibres in the near future,” she says.
H&M has already started to use pre- and post-consumer recycled textile waste in its products, but Tembe points to limitations, particularly when it comes to closing the loop on natural fibres. “For recycled cotton, the highest amount of mechanically recycled post-consumer fibre H&M can use at the moment is 20% without compromising the quality,” she says.
“In the mechanical recycling procedure, the textile fibres are being regenerated in a way that makes the textile fibres shorter and with lower quality than virgin fibre. They need to be blended with virgin fibres to reach our quality standards.”
M&S’s general merchandise innovation delivery manager Jo Gordon sees “huge potential” in reusing post-consumer raw materials in retail fashion – the company plans to launch more closed loop clothing lines later this year. However, she acknowledges there are still challenges involved.
M&S is now looking to drive its own agenda in this space – it is working with the University of Cambridge on a project called Redress, part-funded by Innovate UK, to examine circular economy opportunities around garment recovery. “It’s a two-year project that will investigate opportunities to increase volume and value of textile recovery. It’s too early at this stage to go into further details on what the different opportunities might be, but we have committed to sharing the learnings of the project publicly in 2016,” Gordon says.
Building greater durability into fabrics that can be used again and again could pave the way for the ultimate in closed loop clothing – leasable fibres. This would allow fabric suppliers or textile manufacturers to effectively retain ownership of a garment’s raw materials.
Dutch aWEARness’ Otto says it’s a concept to aim for. “The advantage of a lease model and performance-based contracts is the continuous drive to optimise the performance of the product, the environmental performance and the costs.”
Financing such models, however, remains a huge sticking point, he adds: “We are investigating if there are possibilities for a green investment fund with pension funds or investors.”
Aquafil’s Bonazzi agrees it’s a “great concept”, but cautions: “The logistics could be a potential snag if not cost-effective to all parties, convenient for the consumer or if there is an overall lack of interest and participation from the consumer.”
** This post first appeared on the Guardian Sustainable Business blog here.