Your future T-shirts might be made from potato peels, wheat straw, trees, or even former T-shirts instead of virgin cotton. In Finland, a startup has developed new technology that can transform cellulosic fiber into fiber for the textile industry–without the environmental challenges of older materials.
Spinnova, based in Jyväskylä, Finland, finished building a pilot factory in late 2018. Inside, patented machines grind up wood pulp and agricultural waste into tiny fibers that can be spun into wool and then made into fabric for clothing. The process has advantages over cotton, which requires large amounts of water to grow–often in water-stressed regions–and also uses large amounts of pesticides.
“Our water usage is minimal,” says Janne Poranen, CEO and cofounder of Spinnova, the winner of Fast Company’s 2019 World Changing Ideas Award in the Experimental category. The startup has calculated that it uses more than 99% less water than cotton, largely because it’s using trees that don’t need irrigation as they grow. The process also doesn’t use harmful chemicals. Unlike some other materials that can be made from trees, such as viscose, it doesn’t use chemicals to break down tough fibers. The process is mechanical. “We’re able to produce continuous filament, which is basically all-natural,” says Poranen. “That is unique.” The material also avoids the problems of synthetic fabrics like polyester, which are typically made from fossil fuels and can contribute to plastic waste in the ocean when tiny fibers break off of clothing in washing machines and flow down drains into waterways.
The company is beginning first with wood pulp as a raw material–perhaps unsurprisingly, since it’s based in a region known for forestry and forest products–and with wheat straw, a form of agricultural waste. But over the last few years, it has experimented with multiple other sources of fiber, from carrot peels to cotton clothing. “We’ve only scratched the surface of what options we have available as raw materials,” he says. Clothing as a source of fiber is particularly interesting, because cotton is typically difficult to recycle; if you drop off a pair of old jeans for recycling at a store, they’ll likely turn into a lower-quality material like insulation. The new process, which creates a gel-like material called microfibrillated cellulose, re-creates a high-quality fabric. In theory, brands could take back their old clothing to use as raw material in a fully closed loop. As Spinnova ramps up production at its new factory, it’s now in talks with clothing companies that want to do exactly that.