The Pros And Cons Of Textiles Made From Food Waste
In the past few years, we’ve all seen a rise in demand for vegan and ethical fabric alternatives, which has slowly led to a wide variety of more circular materials that can be used in the fashion and lifestyle industry.
The fashion industry in particular is notorious for its negative environmental impact, but it also has the potential to be part of the solution. By adhering to regenerative design principles and sustainable agricultural practices, fashion can become a force for positive change. One innovative solution is the use of agricultural and food waste to create sustainable materials, which we’ve already touched on a few months ago in this another article.
Agricultural practices create an enormous amount of waste, such as leaves, bark, and fruit skins, that is not utilised or consumed. On average, every kilogram of food harvested produces 1.5 kilograms of residue. The banana crop alone generates a staggering 270 million tons of waste. Unfortunately, this waste is often burned or left to rot, which releases large amounts of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change and air pollution. Burning crop residues also leads to the loss of soil nutrients, bacteria, and fertility, causing soil erosion and negatively impacting plant nutrients and biodiversity.
However, this waste can be transformed into usable fibres for textiles. Renewable biopolymers, such as cellulose, lignin, and pectin, found in plant biomass can be used to create these fibres. By converting agricultural and food waste into fibres, the fashion industry can reduce its environmental impact, mitigate land and water overuse from agriculture, and shift from an extractive to a regenerative system. Of course, depending on the feedstock types, various technologies and production processes are required to create high-quality fabrics.
Fruit peel has become a popular feedstock source for several innovative materials. Leather alternatives such as apple skin and grape musc-based biomaterials as well as silk-like orange peel textiles are now available. Frumat, for instance, produces a leather-like material by extracting cellulose from apple pectin, grinding it into powder, and mixing it with a binder before being spread out onto a backing canvas. Similarly, VEGEA material is created from bio-oil polymerised from dried grape residues collected from the wine industry, resulting in a leather-like texture and feel. Note that PU is added to these materials for increased strength. Another unique product is Orange Fiber, which extracts citrus cellulose from juice production by-products and spins them into a soft, lightweight, and silk-like yarn that can be blended with other materials.
Seed oil & plant stalks
In addition to other sources, seed oil, plant leaves, and stalks are significant sources of feedstock. Agraloop™ is a notable supplier that specialises in working with five agricultural crops: hemp seed oil, flaxseed oil, pineapple leaves, banana trees, and sugarcane bark. Their proprietary Agraloop system applies plant-based chemistry to transform waste into natural fibres called BioFibre. According to Circular Systems™, waste materials from these five crops have the potential to generate over 250 million tonnes of fibre per year, which is more than 2.5 times the current global demand for fibre.
Radici Group, a leading Italian yarn manufacturer, has also developed a technology to produce bio-based nylon yarn synthesised from castor oil plant seeds at a commercial scale. Fabrics made from castor oil-based nylon yarn can be sourced from suppliers such as Olmetex. Other suppliers, such as Torcetex, are specialised in under-explored cellulose fibres. They utilise the usually discarded husk from cotton cultivation to produce beautiful textiles ideal for home furnishing.
Another feedstock material is biogas, harnessed from the natural decomposition of organic waste, sets the stage for the creation of Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs). These PHAs are versatile thermoplastics generated through the fermentation of renewable carbohydrate feedstocks by microorganisms. Notably, PHAs boast a 100% bio-based composition and exhibit excellent biocompatibility.
The landscape of innovation in this field is dynamic, featuring established giants like BASF alongside emerging material science startups such as Mango Materials. BASF, a prominent chemical company, employs a proprietary method known as the mass balance approach. This method enables the replacement of 100% of fossil feedstock in the chemical process, utilising certified renewable material derived from biogas. The result is the production of Ultramid, a high-performance bio-nylon fibre that contributes to a remarkable 35% reduction
in greenhouse gas emissions compared to virgin nylon. Noteworthy mills, including the Taiwanese Flying Tex, play a pivotal role in crafting fabrics from Ultramid.
On a different front, Mango Materials takes an innovative approach by utilising waste methane to nourish bacteria. Through this unique process, bacteria generate the PHA polymer, which is subsequently transformed into yarn. This exemplifies a sustainable and forward-thinking strategy in the utilisation of agricultural waste for the creation of valuable materials.
Materials created from agricultural waste have a number of potential upsides and benefits, but there are also several factors to take into account.
- Distinguishing between bio-based and biomass feedstocks is crucial. Bio-based feedstocks may compete for arable land, contributing to deforestation and loss of biodiversity. Biomass feedstocks, on the other hand, are more environmentally preferred and efficient, since they don't require new production of crops and re-use waste that would otherwise be discarded.
- Recycling and disposing of biomass-based materials can be challenging. Not all recycling technologies can distinguish between different types of plastic, and end-of-use concerns must be addressed to ensure that biopolymer materials can be used to their full potential without adversely affecting their commercial viability.
- Biodegradability is also an important factor. Some biopolymers are not biodegradable and can even off-gas detrimentally if not properly processed. Moreover, composting may not be an option for clothing products that are made from mixed material sources, such as cotton and polyester blends. It's important to consider whether the product being composted can return nutrients to the soil or if recycling or up-cycling would be a better option.
On top of that, there’s also the concern of what chemicals are being used for the finishing touches of colour, feel and texture of these materials. In fact, according to the lengthy research conducted by FILK Freiberg Institute, some of the leather alternative materials contained traces of explicitly banned chemicals in EU, in particular Desserto (Cactus Leather), Appleskin and Piñatex, the group of plastic-coated textile leathers. Whilst fibres made from food waste are certainly an avenue to explore in order to make the fashion industry more circular, there’s a lot more work and research to do in order to be able to do this at 100%.
[info sourced on commonobjective.co and fashinza.com
All images sourced on canva.com]