Aussie company makes breakthrough on clothing recycling

·3-min read
Paul Miller/AAP PHOTOS

An Australian company has made a stunning breakthrough that will soon be turning fast fashion into forever fashion.

Modern fabrics are notoriously difficult to recycle because they are made from a complex blend of materials that typically includes plastics. As a result, they almost always end up in landfill.

Some are a mix of natural fibres such as cotton, and plastic ones like polyester. Others like the stretchy fabrics used for activewear are mostly plastic, substances consumers would know as nylon and elastane.

Now Australian company Samsara Eco has revealed it has an enzyme that can break down the two types of nylon that are most commonly used in textiles.

The original chemical building blocks can then be recovered and reused an infinite number of times without any loss in quality, meaning old clothes can forever be made into new ones.

The enzyme is the work of scientists at the Australian National University, which has partnered with Samsara to pursue the Holy Grail of infinite recycling for problematic plastics.

It is the latest in a growing library of plastic-specific enzymes the company has developed.

But the two that deal with nylon-6 and nylon-6,6 are a particularly big deal because until now there's been no way to deal with them, pretty much guaranteeing tired old clothes a one-way trip to the dump.

"Nylon, and other synthetic fibres like polyester, are polymers, in which many building blocks are joined through chemical linkages," says ANU Professor Colin Jackson, who's also Samsara's chief science officer.

"Our enzymes specifically break only these linkages, so there is no destruction of the building blocks, and these can be recovered to synthesise as-new fibres."

Samsara founder Paul Riley says the company has just inked a partnership with clothing brand lululemon, which has over 650 stores in 18 countries.

The plan is to have a limited collection of new garments, made from old returned ones, on sale by mid next year. But a larger scale up, including a recycling plant, likely in north America, could take two years.

The nylon enzyme will be used in conjunction with another one Samsara developed earlier. It deals with polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, a plastic widely used in packaging like water bottles, but also in clothing.

"We'll use them in conjunction so we can take the polyester out, then the nylon out, and we're left with a range of other plastics, like elastane," Mr Riley said.

He said the company is yet to get an enzyme for elastane to patent stage "but it's certainly on our science program".

"We're working on another 10 plastics on top of the ones we've already got enzymes for. We'll continue to grow that enzyme library," Mr Riley said.

"We're using sophisticated AI machine-learning technology ... so we're doing it very quickly."

The goal is to get to there point where there aren't any leftovers.

Mr Riley said Samsara is pressing on with plans to build an enzymatic recycling plant near Canberra, with a development application to be lodged soon.

The company is also working on business cases with other major partners about where their plants might be in Europe, Asia and North America.

But he is careful to point out that each plant is a drop in the bucket in the face of the vast volumes of waste the fashion industry produces.

As he sees it, the end game will be for every brand to take responsibility for the full life cycle of their products, take them back, and use technologies like Samsara's to make them new again.

Samsara Eco's investors include the federal government's Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the Woolworths Group, and Main Sequence Ventures - the CSIRO's innovation fund.