Design for Decomposition, a multi-year initiative led by the Biomimicry Institute, has been awarded €2.5 million. The effort intends to demonstrate scalable new channels for fashion waste by embracing real decomposition — the way leaves break down into the soil to generate healthy ecosystems. The program is a follow-up to the institute's 2020 report, The Nature of Fashion, in which decomposition was highlighted as the industry's missing link.
The Biomimicry Institute will pilot technologies that convert waste clothes and textiles into biocompatible raw materials in collaboration with the Laudes Foundation, the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA), Yale Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering, Metabolic Institute, The OR Foundation, and Celery Design. Pilots will be held in Western Europe and Ghana as part of the multi-year Design for Decomposition program, which will test the most promising decomposition technologies that are commercially viable but have yet to scale.
The program will start with a biological study into the different types and circumstances of natural decomposition, and then compare those techniques to the hundreds of existing decomposition technologies to see which ones perform best. These alternatives will be tested in the pilot phase in Accra, Ghana, which receives roughly 15 million used clothes every week, as well as other cities with more established waste management systems, such as Amsterdam or Berlin. Simultaneously, Yale researchers will investigate what actually decomposes and how it happens.
Dr. Paul Anastas, director of the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering at Yale, said that determining the rate or speed at which molecules degrade in the environment is vital for assessing dangers to our own health and the health of the ecosystem. While tests to assess chemical biodegradation in the environment have been devised and are routinely carried out, they have significant limitations that make it difficult to predict the destiny of chemicals and materials in the real environment. There is to bridge that divide.
A new approach is needed for the fashion business to avoid some of the worst effects of a worldwide industry that produces 100 billion clothes each year for a population of 7.5 billion people. Following a steep drop in pricing, the amount of clothing purchased per person in the EU has climbed by 40% in the last 25 years. Every year, Europeans squander about 11 kilograms of clothing, with some worn things being exported overseas to locations like Accra, but the most being burnt or landfilled, including a substantial part of donated clothing that people hoped would find a new home. However, with landfills closing, new ones being too expensive to build, and incinerators being scrutinized for carbon emissions, a new – or very old – option is becoming increasingly required.
Beth Rattner, executive director of the Biomimicry Institute, said that nature has primary producers, consumers, and decomposers, and all rely on dispersal and entropy and without all three there is no cadence to life. If the fashion industry wants to be a positive force on the earth, it must adhere to the same natural laws. The North Star is a shirt that supports the regenerative fashion system that we all know is feasible, rather than a shirt that becomes another shirt.
The initiative is part of the Laudes Foundation's fashion materials portfolio, which supports initiatives that inspire and challenge the industry to use its power for good.
Anita Chester, Laudes Foundation's head of materials, said that demonstrating that decomposition can put fashion back into natural resource cycles will be a powerful proof point for fashion and its allied industries, as well as a bold step towards reversing the environmental damage the industry has caused thus far. They’re ecstatic to sponsor the Biomimicry Institute's consortium, and they eagerly anticipate the outcomes of their game-changing pilots to scale bio-compatible solutions for the fashion industry as a whole.
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