Even as climate change conversations reach the mainstream, there are 111 million metric tons of fabrics being produced on a yearly basis — an alarming 18 million of which is made up of oil-based nylon and polyester, which take over 1,000 years to biodegrade.
“Actually we don’t know how these fibres will break down, our ancestors will tell us,” said Carlo Centoze, cofounder and chief executive officer of HeiQ, a textile innovation company.
Since “no one wants to start walking around naked,” the world is in dire need of a scalable alternative to these fibres, according to Centoze — who after many years of research, might have the solution.
It’s called AeoniQ, a cellulose yarn spun from algae, bacteria or recycled fibres.
“Bacteria were the first organisms to produce this biopolymer more than 3 billion years ago. The solution has always been there, we just had to rediscover it and use technology to come up with a product. Over many years we built processes which allow us to spin cellulose in a way that it reaches the performance of polyester independent of the sources we are using, be it algae, bacteria, or recycled sources,” explained Centoze.
“Our tech allows us to use all sources, so we finally have a possibility to produce at scale. The problem with the world is this concept of ‘at scale’ as we need to replace 18 million tonnes of polyester and nylon per year. This technology is versatile enough to use many raw material sources, allowing us to have a big available base of biopolymer, meaning we are actually becoming serious about replacing polyester and nylon.”
There’s robust demand for such a fiber in the market, as conventional recycling of polyester and nylon fabrics isn’t a viable solution — whether you are washing virgin or recycled nylon, micro-plastics still end up in the ocean, in fish and in food chains.
“They go into every organism, not just fish but also algae. They are in the food chain, they create inflammations and health issues and break down the ecosystems. Polyester is the worst, because the density is such that it stays suspended between 3 to 10 meters in the ocean where there’s life. So we’re killing more and more life every day,” contended Centoze. “We need something we can wash, that goes into the ocean but degrades quickly, not over thousands of years. It should take months or a year at most to biodegrade. That’s where we need to get as a society, to make materials that can do that and brands need to design products that are built for those materials.”
Even organic fibers like cotton, which can easily biodegrade, have other harmful environmental effects — in the case of cotton, it takes 25,000 litres of water to make a single T-shirt and extensive cotton production uses up enormous amounts of land, leading once again to the breakdown of ecosystems.
So, innovative new materials are the “best available solution today” and HeiQ is on a mission to scale its solution as quickly as possible.
A production plant is currently being set up in Austria, with a pilot run of the first commercial samples slated for March 2022 for a limited number of partners — Lycra being among the first. From there the aim is to scale as quickly as possible and recruit as many partners as possible to allow the company to maximize production and be in a position to replace the 18 million tonnes of nylon and polyester being produced every year. By next year, its capacity will be at 300,000 tonnes.
“By 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. It’s 2021 now, so we need to hurry. That’s why we will really try to maximize the adoption of our technology on a global scale,” said Centoze, adding that industry stakeholders can no longer deny climate change, so market response is expected to be immediate. “The times of oil lobbyists paying the scientists to deny the issue are over. Everybody knows it’s a problem and we have to solve it.”
HeiQ is also ensuring that it offers competitive price points to further drive its mission of replacing oil-based fibres with the new AeoniQ textile. It currently retails for $5 a square meter, which adheres to market standards for conventional textiles, and aims to drop prices further once scale is achieved.
“Cost is always a big aspect. I’m a strong believer that a green technology must come at the same price points as non-green technology, but prices of polyester and nylon are driven by scale,” said Centoze.
As this new technology becomes more widely adopted, Centoze added that the remainder of the responsibility lies with the designers, who need to learn to design clothes with fewer material components that aren’t just recyclable but biodegradable, too. “It requires a shift in mind-set. Consumers select for for fit, for comfort, for price and have limited knowledge. It comes down to those who design the products for our industry: They have to step up and join in. We want to share all our know-how and pull the industry together, but they will be ultimately responsible to set the tone with their designs.”