Australian recycling startup Samsara Eco has made a significant breakthrough in the fashion industry through a collaboration with clothing giant Lululemon. Lululemon has taken a minority stake in the startup, although the exact amount has not been disclosed. This partnership represents Lululemon’s first investment in a recycling company and highlights the fashion industry’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions and recycling old textiles.
The fashion industry is responsible for approximately 10% of global carbon emissions each year, a number that is projected to increase by 50% by 2030. Additionally, the industry heavily relies on plastic-derived textiles made from petroleum. Around 70% of materials used in apparel production, such as polyester, nylon, spandex, and acrylic, contain plastic. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of these plastic-derived materials are recycled, with estimates suggesting that only 15% are sent to recycling facilities. The majority of discarded textiles, which are 90% reusable and recyclable, end up in landfills or incinerators. With the demand for apparel continuing to grow, there is a pressing need for the fashion industry to invest in plastic recycling efforts and reduce its reliance on virgin plastic materials.
Currently, there are two main methods for fashion companies to recycle textiles: mechanical recycling and chemical recycling using solvents. However, both approaches have their limitations. Mechanical recycling does not allow for multiple recycling cycles of the recovered plastics, while chemical recycling often requires excessive energy consumption. This is where Samsara Eco comes in with its innovative enzymatic approach.
Samsara Eco utilizes enzymes that can break down complex plastics (polymers) and convert them back into their original chemical composition (monomers). This unique recycling technology is infinite, as it can create new, virgin-grade plastics without the need for fossil fuels. It also operates at lower temperatures, making the breakdown of textiles more efficient. According to Paul Riley, CEO of Samsara Eco, their enzymatic process can handle various types of plastics, including hard-to-recycle and contaminated plastics, in a low-heat, carbon-neutral environment.
This enzymatic recycling technology has significant environmental benefits. By using less heat and avoiding the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, Samsara Eco can prevent the emission of 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually. This is crucial because the production of virgin plastics from fossil fuels contributes significantly to global warming. Projections suggest that by 2050, the plastics sector will consume 15% of the global carbon budget. Samsara Eco aims to recycle 1.5 million metric tons of plastic per year by 2030, a significant step towards reducing plastic waste.
The partnership between Samsara Eco and Lululemon is groundbreaking as it allows the startup to become the first to infinitely recycle nylon and polyester, which together make up about 60% of apparel production. Lululemon plans to repurpose nylon and polyester blends from old apparel to create new collections using Samsara Eco’s enzymatic process. Yogendra Dandapure of Lululemon emphasizes the importance of addressing plastic waste, particularly nylon, in achieving the company’s sustainable product goals by 2030.
Other companies and researchers are also working on innovative textile recycling technologies. One team has developed a natural enzyme called PETase, which can degrade PET plastic and modify it using machine learning. Another startup, Circ, has created a hydrothermal processing technology that can recycle blended textiles like polyester-cotton blends. Protein Evolution, a Connecticut-based company, is developing a similar enzymatic approach for recycling plastics, specifically nylon and polyester.
These companies may also be eligible for plastic credits or carbon credits. Plastic credits are earned for collecting and recycling one ton of plastic waste that would otherwise have been discarded. Combining plastic credits with carbon credits allows companies to address their sustainability goals and reduce their environmental impact. As part of their net-zero commitments, many companies are actively working towards reducing plastic waste.
While Samsara Eco’s technology is still in the scaling-up phase, the support from major clothing brands like Lululemon is a significant milestone. It demonstrates the industry’s recognition of the urgent need for sustainable solutions and its willingness to invest in innovative recycling technologies.