Imagine returning a pair of scuffed sneakers or a pair of worn-out yoga pants to the company that made them, knowing that the polyester material they are made of will be biologically broken down to its fundamental components and then used to create a new product, be it sneakers, yoga pants, or anything else made of polyester. This is the future that a consortium of well-known sportswear brands and a biotech startup called Carbios are working toward. The French business has secured a partnership with On, Patagonia, Puma, and Salomon to speed up the commercialization of its bio-recycling technology for textiles. The startup has created an enzymatic process to break down polyethylene terephthalate (also known as PET).
The partnership seeks to create the first extensive fiber-to-fiber system in the industry, a system that might significantly contribute to circularity in the fashion sector. According to Emmanuel Ladent, CEO of Carbios, the companies "can use plastics to generate fibers, but they don't have a solution for fiber-to-fiber recycling at scale." At the same time, Carbios has joined with PET producer Indorama Ventures to construct and run the first PET-based plastic bio-recycling facility on a commercial scale in Lunéville, a commune (or township) in the French department of Meurthe et Moselle. The facility, which would recover local plastic trash, is anticipated to start operations in 2025. PET is an oil-based polymer that creates three products: plastic bottles, clothing, and carpets. In the garment industry, the term polyester is commonly used as a nickname for PET which has become the most widely used fiber globally, accounting for more than 50% of all fibers produced worldwide.
According to Carbios, its enzyme can selectively degrade polyester materials, making it possible to recover most of the polyester in textile waste, including blended materials. Enzymatic recycling breaks down PET on a molecular level, making it possible to recreate a high-quality virgin material that may be recycled repeatedly, making the process, in theory, genuinely circular. This stands “in contrast to standard recycling, which degrades the quality of PET and limits the number of times it may be recycled as well as the amount that may be used in any given product. In the world of traditional recycling, the choices are frequently not circular. Materials can be recycled one, two, or three times, after which it is finished. With our knowledge, the possibilities are almost endless" said Ladent, who joined Carbios in late 2021.
An enzyme called Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6 was found outside a bottle-recycling facility by a team of researchers led by microbiologist Kohei Oda from the Kyoto Institute of Expertise in Japan. This microorganism could not only degrade and metabolize PET but also use plastic as its primary source of vitamins. Researchers have been learning about the enzymes that break down plastic for several decades. Many of these enzymes had been identified by the middle of the 2010s, but it wasn't until 2016 that this significant finding was discovered.