Partner and patent attorney and associate at Withers & Rogers, Dr Joanna Thurston and Naomi Higginson looks at how a fresh wave of tech-led disruptors are attempting to clean up the world of fast fashion.
The global textile industry has been identified as the second largest industrial polluter after the aviation sector, and consumers have become more aware of the damage that it is causing to the environment and communities in underdeveloped areas of the world.
Much of the problem stems from the popularity of fast fashion, which has led to consumers in Western countries buying more clothes more frequently, only to dispose of them after a couple of wears or at the end of the season.
A study by Aalto University has revealed that the fashion industry accounts for 10% of global pollution and textile production generates a staggering 92 million tonnes of waste per year.
Attitudes are changing however, and high-profile news reports have drawn attention to the social and environmental impact of textile waste, which is typically shipped in large quantities to countries in West Africa or South America to be “recycled” or “resold”.
Arriving in container loads, much of this textile waste reaches its destination in a damaged condition, so it can’t be reused. As a result, this waste is incinerated or ends up in landfill.
However, greater awareness of the problem is leading to a change of behaviour, with more Western consumers choosing to buy second-hand clothing and recycle or donate their used clothing. Some are also choosing to buy products made from textiles that are manufactured more sustainably and can be recycled more easily.
Counting the environmental cost
The textile industry negatively impacts the environment in a variety of ways; two key areas being the use of potentially polluting chemicals and energy-intensive production methods.
For natural fibres, such as cotton, the environmental impact begins in the field, due to the use of mechanised irrigation systems to keep crops watered in countries where water supplies are already depleted.
Synthetic fertilisers are also used to optimise yields by controlling pests and weeds, even though that one ton of nitrogen fertiliser emits greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to nearly seven tons of CO2.
For synthetic fibres, such as polyester, the environmental impact can be greater, largely due to the fibres often being sourced from fossil fuels, and as a result of the use of chemicals in polymer production.
Regardless of whether natural or synthetic fibres are being used, dyeing and finishing processes also have a significant environmental impact. Potentially hazardous chemicals tend to be used in large volumes, although only a small amount stays attached to the fibres.
The rest – such as chlorine dioxide from bleaching, hydrocarbons and ammonia from fabric printing, or ammonia from fabric-finishing operations – is washed away in wastewater or released into the atmosphere, polluting nearby water courses and impacting biodiversity, potentially causing respiratory disease.
Becoming more circular
Reducing the environmental impact of global textile production is a multi-faceted problem, requiring major shifts in behaviour as well as a focus on technological innovation.
Many large-scale textile producers are operating large plants with machinery that can’t easily be adapted to run in a cleaner and more sustainable way. Installing renewable energy systems requires significant upfront investment and creating circular energy loops in this type of environment is not easy to achieve.
Instead, the pathway to a circular textile economy is being led by smaller tech-led innovators, some of which are spinouts from university research departments. Many of them are involved in the development of new fibre recycling technologies, such as finding ways to deal with impurities by separating polyester blends or innovating cleaner dyeing methods.
As an example of the latter, DyeRecycle, a spinout from Imperial College London, has developed a circular chemical technology to decolour textile waste and reuse old dyes.
In other cases, innovators are developing new dyes that are less polluting by design, such as faster bleaching processes, or totally new fibres that have been designed and developed with the circular economy in mind, such as “Lyocell” and “Tencel”, both of which are made by Lenzing, and “Kapok”, made by Flocus.
An analysis of recent patent-filing activity In Europe, conducted by Withers & Rogers, has shed light on some of the cutting-edge innovations involved in developing a circular textile economy. Much of this innovation activity is focused on cleaning up production processes, particularly those that use harmful chemicals, and facilitating recyclability.
US company, Kintra Fibers is looking for ways to clean up the production of polybutylene succinate, a resin of the polyester family. The company has a European patent (EP3986832) pending for a means of producing nanocomposite resins to reduce the amount of chemical by-product generated.
Another US company, Circ, has a European patent (EP3737783) pending for an innovative method of treating cotton and polyester fibres to make them easier to recycle. The method involves treating the waste textile material in a subcritical water reactor at a temperature of 105-109oC and pressures ranging from 40-300 psi.
The Aalto University Foundation also has a European patent (EP3577271) pending for a process that converts waste textile material into new fibres while limiting the use of harmful chemicals. This process involves cooking waste material in a liquor to remove lignin, which results in a pulp that can be dissolved and spun into new cellulose fibres.
Some innovators are looking to clean up the processes involved in textile recycling by reducing the environmental impact of polymer separation.
For example, UK-based Worn Again has a patent (GB2560726) pending for a process that involves fewer energy-intensive steps. The method described in the patent application involves the use of an ionic liquid, which is used as part of an adaptive solvent system to separate the polymers.
Focusing on fibres
Cotton is a widely used raw material in the manufacturing of yarns, but its cultivation requires the use of a large amount of water. Spinnova has been granted a European patent (EP2753738) for an innovative method of producing fibrous yarn without using a large quantity of water, which involves eliminating the need to produce a paper first.
Headquartered in the Netherlands, Flocus is attempting to side-step the use of cotton altogether by working out a way to extract spinnable kapok fibres from the kapok tree. While these naturally-sourced plant fibres are biocompatible and biodegradable, they are difficult to spin, which means they have been traditionally used as stuffing material for mattresses and teddy bears.
With a patent application (EP3887579) pending, Flocus has developed a means of separating the longest and cleanest kapok fibres which are suitable for spinning and adjusting their moisture content so they can be blended with a fibre base.
The innovation curve
With so much interest in cleaning up the textile industry and the world of fast fashion, innovation activity is gathering pace. This makes it even more important than usual that disruptors apply for patent protection at an early stage to protect their innovations from copycats and prevent competitors from beating them to market.
With a growing number of global retail brands vying to partner with innovators to promote their commitment to sustainability, such patents could also be regarded as door openers leading to research-led collaborations and licensing agreements.