A fiber regenerated from discarded textiles and can be processed in converted viscose mills: Kirsi Terho of Infinited Fiber Company explains how this circular alternative to cotton is made
In his book Cradle to Cradle, American architect William McDonough, alongside Michael Braungart, argued that all economic processes could function so that their waste products become a foodstuff for something else. In this strategy, all products are broken down to ‘technical nutrients’ which are used to make new products, or biological components that return to the soil to be broken down.
Coming out of Espoo, Finland, Infinited Fiber Company’s aims are to provide a solution to the 73 percent of clothing that is sent to landfill or burnt; and to reimagine the fashion industry by cultivating an ecosystem where natural resources are no longer abused. To respond to the industry’s concerns over the unsustainable demand for cotton, they have created a man-made cellulosic fiber, using chemical recycling, that is close in characteristics to cotton: it looks and feels soft and natural. This new fiber does not require hazardous chemicals in production, and takes on a cotton-like feel. As a regenerated alternative to virgin cotton, their textile fiber production reduces demand on freshwater supplies and can also «leave more land for growing food crops for our growing population».
With a background in viscose production, Kirsi Terho, Infinited Fiber’s Key Account Manager understands the similarities and differences in the process. «The technology for both is similar, particularly with the way that the fiber is spun. However, the activation method is different. The viscose industry requires heavy personal protection equipment as they use a hazardous chemical called carbon disulfide. During activation for our fiber, we’ve replaced that chemical with urea which is natural». The fiber produced emulates cotton without the environmental costs, has anti-odour properties and has a higher colour uptake than cotton or viscose, reducing the use of chemicals, dyestuff, water and energy at this step. The uses are all-encompassing for the fashion industry; from woven to non-woven, allowing them to fulfil a variety of textile requirements.
Their process begins with the arrival of the raw material: cellulose-rich textile waste (like old cotton T-shirts or jeans) that has been sorted and shredded before it arrives at Infinited Fiber. The textile fibers are separated using an acid and alkaline treatment which removes impurities like polyesters and chemical additives, leaving behind the cellulose fibers. Next, this mass is treated with animal food-grade urea – a naturally occurring compound – and through the use of conductors, force, time and heat, the cellulose mass is turned into cellulose carbamate powder. This powder is turned into a honey-like solution, and once in its liquid form, any remaining impurities – like elastane – are filtered out. The final stage is wet-spinning. Here, the liquid cellulose is dispersed through small nozzles using acid that causes the cellulose to crystallize into pure cellulose fibers. The strands formed are then stretched to reach the required tension, cut to the staple length, washed, and dried before being bailed to be sent to yarn manufacturers.
Infinited Fiber Company’s textile fiber regeneration process is different to other man-made cellulosic fibres in its ability to use any cellulose-rich material as raw material. For example, discarded clothes, used cardboard, wood, or rice or wheat straw can be used as an input. The opportunity to have multiple input streams means that its production can be commercially viable. «If material has cellulose, we can use it». Whilst the output is high (approximately 90% from 100% cotton), Infinited Fiber are aware that they are still producing waste products as «when we remove the polyester from the textile waste, we also take out all the other waste products which form a sludge. We can then burn this and use it as energy in our production process». Whilst this process is not yet streamlined, they have been «looking at finding a partner who can work out how to remove the polyester (from the sludge) and break it down to reduce the waste at this step». Their awareness of not being ‘perfect’ with respect to circularity means that Infinited Fiber are taking steps to «make sure that every single stream is circulated, and all products from those streams are collected to make the process as closed as possible».
In order to further close the textile loop, Infinited Fiber aims to utilize existing viscose mills that have made pledges to use greener chemistry methods to create their fiber. This pressure to make changes has come from brands who are looking for more sustainable materials and processes in response to consumer pressure. Infinited Fiber are working alongside these factories to put them in a position where they can start cellulose carbamate fiber production. Due to both industry and consumer pressures, «fashion houses have now made a commitment to be fully sustainable so they need to begin to find solutions. It helps that we have a product to show; and they have been very happy to see that the fabric made with this fiber is real, and that you can make garments out of it». They have found that a change in mentality is happening at the brand level. «Making sustainable choices is forcing large brands to look deeper into the process; changing the way that they view the materials going into their clothing». It is these companies that have the opportunity to influence the politics within the industry and, if they make a circular system seem commercially viable, others will be able to follow their lead. Infinited Fiber have decided to focus on gathering the support of larger companies «as we believe that these can have an impact both financially, and with respect to raising awareness for other companies and consumers». But their collaboration also spans smaller, more niche players who «often have interesting solutions that we might not have thought of yet, which opens up the opportunity for greater variety for our product».
Whilst they are not at industrial level production, their «technology is robust; you can use different types of raw material to make this fiber, yet we produce the same high quality fiber each time». The next step for Infinited Fiber has been to find ways to increase production to make their processes function on a commercial scale. This comes with challenges «ramping up production from a small pilot to large scale is a big step; it takes time and money to perfect the systems». Their next steps are to «work on a feasibility study with the first technology license buyer; to address how we can implement all of our work into their machines». Whilst they have their own production facilities that can make the fiber on a small scale «so that we can show the world that there is demand, that it is doable, and that there are tangible garments made from it», these are not able to meet the expected demand.
Infinited Fiber aims to help the textile industry redefine how it operates; to make their fibers a financially viable option to close the ‘circularity gap’. «You need to change the economy of it; how it is financed and who finances it, whilst still making sure that it is economically viable. It is both a political and economic question that is country specific». Kirsi believes that achieving change will be a group effort. «We need the (textile waste) sorters, the collectors, we need to have both manufacturers and brands on side. Everybody within this industry needs to put their heads together to make this method of production practical and efficient». In doing this they hope to target the global textile industry, focussing their efforts at the source of the environmental problem. Infinited Fiber are looking to make efficient use of what has already been produced, and would otherwise go to waste to subsume these textiles back into the clothing production system. This creates an opportunity for agricultural land to be used to feed the growing global population as no new land would be required to produce textile fibers.
Even though an attempt to completely close the ‘circularity gap’ might not be achievable in the short-term, Infinited Fiber are providing a technology that can help to solve the issues surrounding excessive textile waste being burned or landfilled. Their fiber will in turn fulfil the need for sustainable bio-based textile fibers that preserve natural resources. Kirsi believes that «we need to rethink the full lifecycle of clothing, and minimise the impact». In doing this, they are showing that change is possible, and necessary in order to save the environment.IMAGE GALLERY
Infinited Fiber is a Finnish startup that has developed a technology that can return the cotton, viscose and other cellulose based residues back to new MMC fibers. The technology can be applied in any existing dissolving pulp and vMMC fiber plant.