New Fibers from Waste Products
By Fiona Forrest
Growing concerns over sustainability of petrochemical-based yarns and water thirsty fiber crops have inspired new yarns and fabrics made from waste feedstock. Interest in these fibers and leather replacements, made from pineapple and banana leaves, orange peel, used coffee grounds, and waste cardboard is growing, especially in the vegan marketplace. Some fibers, such as banana, are also used in the production of filtration membranes, paper, and teabags. However, using waste as feedstock has its issues—not all waste can be re-used to the quality required, so how do manufacturers go from field to fabric?
Piñatex by Ananas-Anam is a vegan leather substitute made from pineapple leaves, a by-product of the crop in the Philippines. At the end of the harvest, the leaves are collected, and the long fibers extracted, washed, and dried to remove impurities. The resulting fluffy fibers are mixed with a corn-based polylactic acid and processed to make the non-woven Piñafelt. This is the basis of the leather substitute that is shipped to Spain for finishing into Piñatex.
Photo credit: Jacob Meant for Ananas-Anam
Piñatex is breathable and can be cleaned with soapy water, but the finished product contains 10% PU (coating) and therefore is not fully biodegradable. Piñatex says that the longevity of the product means replacement is reduced and that with 13 million tons of pineapple agricultural waste per year, it only takes 480 leaves to make 1m2 of Piñatex. Piñatex is used by both Hugo Boss and H&M, and also in upholstery and the automotive sector. Em Mendoza, head of Sales & Business Development for the company, says, “We are continuously developing new products alongside improving our current ones to meet the various requirements of several industries.”
Italian-based Orange Fiber uses waste from the orange juicing industry to produce sustainable cellulose for spinning. Maria Elena Nicotra, Oranger Fiber’s digital communication specialist, describes the process. “We have developed and patented an innovative process to extract cellulose for spinning from citrus juice by-products. That’s what remains after industrial squeezing of citrus fruits for juice—valuing just in Italy more than 700,000 tons—that otherwise would have to be disposed of with high costs for the environment and for the citrus juice industries,” she says.
Photo credit: Orange Fiber
“We process the citrus juice by-product (the so-called ‘pastazzo’), in our pilot plant in Catania (Sicily), extracting from it the citrus cellulose to be spun, then we send it to a partner in Spain which is in charge of spinning it, then the yarn comes back to Como to our selected fabric producer, where it is transformed into our exclusive fabrics for Fashion,” says Nicotra. “Our citrus cellulose yarn has a silky feel that can be blended with other yarns and materials while transformed into a textile in order to satisfy all the fashion designer creation needs. If used as pure, 100% citrus textile, the resulting fabric will have a soft and silky feel, light weight, and be opaque or shiny according to the designer’s needs. We have already developed fabrics as poplin—adding cotton jersey, adding elastane, and our twill—either pure or blended with silk.”
“In 2017, for the Ferragamo Orange Fiber Collection for instance, we used a 110 dtex filament thread blended with silk, to obtain a silky twill that has the same look, feel, and function of its silk homologue. In terms of quality, it can be dyed, colored, and printed using inkjet techniques and screen printing as existing fabrics,” Nicotra says.
Photo credit: Orange Fiber
Orange Fiber’s plans for the future include scaling up the techology, notes Nicotra,. “We believe that sustainability is a goal for the future of our planet and for the people who live there, and that using waste and/or by-products to create new material can be a good strategy to reach this goal in the textile and fashion industry…further, we want to expand our production outside Europe in order to increase our impact and minimize our logistics, keeping in mind our sustainability goal. Today we are working hard to move forward in the R&D process to a point where we can scale up the technology and restart the production, with a long term goal of optimizing the costs of production. On July 2019 we raised 650,000 euros through an equity crowdfunding campaign. Thanks to these funds, we bought some fundamental machinery to optimize our industrial production process and increase our production capacity, going from 15 tons up to 60 tons of citrus cellulose. This means that we will be able to increase our production volumes, from 10,000 meters of fabric to 70,000 meters by 2020.”
Taiwan’s Singtex uses waste coffee grounds to produce S.Café mylithe yarn. They are now also developing a replacement for chemical inks with their fabric printing technology P4Dry. The used coffee grounds are mixed with waste plastic to form a pellet, which, when melted, forms filaments which can be used to make yarn. Singtex say that fabrics made with their yarn have enhanced odor-control, UV protection, and are fast-drying. Recent collaborations include Timberland, Hugo Boss, and The North Face, and they have also used their technology to make PPE.
Textiles and Cardboard
Infinited Fiber Company, winners of The Europas 2020 ‘Hottest Sustainability Tech,’ recently held a virtual ‘Open House’ event from their base in Finland. Afterwards, Chief Marketing Officer Ann Sarimo described how their innovative process creates new fibers from waste cellulose sources such as textiles and cardboard. Their method for processing includes heat treatment with urea after shredding, to make a liquid that is wet spun and formed into filaments that can be used for making new yarns.
“We’re able to utilize cellulose rich waste streams and have been focusing mainly on post-consumer textile waste since that’s a most serious global problem to solve,” she says. “Additionally, our process can take in cardboard waste and cellulose-rich agricultural waste like straw. All the fibers that we’re producing today are made from 100% post-consumer textile waste. The resulting textiles and garments that were presented at our Open House were made either from 100% Infinited Fiber or were blends of either 75% Infinited Fiber/25% organic cotton or 50% Infinited Fiber/50% organic cotton. We’ve also produced non-woven textile samples and performance tests have demonstrated very good results,” says Sarimo.
Other feedstocks now utilized for yarn production around the world include rice straw, sugar cane bark, and hemp residue. How do textile manufacturers and designers find these new fibers? One way is to utilize an on-line hub. Adriana Ricklin from Swicofil AG, based in Switzerland, described how they help manufacturers find specialized fibers, including banana and pineapple.
“Swicofil is a platform or hub for many yarn and fibers,” Ricklin says. “Meaning we do not produce the yarns ourselves, but are the contact point for whenever yarns are needed that are very special or which go into a non-standard applications like aerospace, medical, and such. Over the past decades, we have built an intensive network with high-quality production sites from all over the world for whom we may offer their products. So instead of our customers having to contact diverse companies for when they are looking for a new product, they can come to us from the beginning, which saves a lot of time.”
The recent pandemic has put many manufacturers behind due to local lockdowns. But can this ‘pause’ in manufacturing be seen as a positive? Swicofil’s Ricklin believes so. “Corona has affected the entire industry of course. For example, the automotive branch is severely affected which also influences the market for yarn and fibers. However, we chose to see this ‘time off’ as a chance, meaning for people to catch a break so that new, innovative ideas can be created.”