The ultra-tough materials used in firefighting gear and bulletproof vests are very helpful for stopping flames or bullets, but those same properties make them difficult to recycle, so they usually end up in landfills. But Vollebak, a company that makes innovative clothing—like the world’s first graphene jacket—started thinking about how to use the trash as its newest material, for a garment it’s calling the Garbage Sweater.
“If you think about garbage as prebuilt materials, what can you do with it?” says Vollebak cofounder Steve Tidball. The company was already interested in aramids, the fireproof-waterproof materials used in clothing for firefighters and fighter pilots. In a line of “100 year” clothing designed to survive some of the impacts of climate change, the designers had used the same materials to make clothing themselves. But they realized that no one had solved the problem of how to eventually recycle those clothes. “We started thinking about what happens at the end of the lifecycle of something that’s deliberately been designed not to be destroyed,” he says.
The designers partnered with a mill in France that had started collecting old materials destined for the trash, including some of the 500 tons of firefighter gear thrown out each year in that country alone. The mill was using the material to make fireproof gloves, but it was considered too ugly to use for anything else. “Anything that’s ‘ugly’ is automatically interesting for designers,” Tidball says. They worked with the mill to recycle the old gear into a soft, warm material that could be used instead in a sweater.
The process involves dumping old firefighter gear, bulletproof vests, and other scraps of material into a huge pile, and pulling them apart to extract fibers. The thick fibers are then washed and flattened multiple times and “mashed together,” he says. Eventually, the result is something that looks and feels like raw wool, comfortable enough to be used in a sweater. Part of the challenge was finding a manufacturing partner that was willing to also experiment. Unlike going with a fast fashion brand using cotton or polyester fabric, they had to find partners that could work with a material that hadn’t been used in the past for regular, non-industrial clothing.
As a startup selling small runs of clothing, Vollebak says that it can’t singlehandedly use the enormous amounts of this type of waste that are currently being tossed out. But the company wants to serve as a proof of concept. “We’re just one company amongst hundreds of thousands of companies,” says Tidball. “But if you can do things that other people who run companies look at and go, ‘Oh, wow, that’s interesting. I wonder what we could do?,’ that’s an impact in itself.”