Waste not, want not. More than a maxim for picky children, the phrase has become a kind of raison d’être for a new breed of textile manufacturer that is spinning agricultural castoffs into business gold. Certainly the strategy has its environmental appeal.
Millions of tons of fibrous crop residues are chucked after every harvest, according to Isaac Nichelson, co-founder and CEO of Circular Systems, a California-based materials science startup and one of Sourcing Journal’s 2019 Sustaining Voices honorees.
Inedible and therefore devoid of intrinsic value, banana trunks, pineapple leaves, sugarcane barks and oilseed hemp and flax stalks are typically burned or left behind to rot, generating greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (in the former case) or methane (in the latter) that exacerbate climate change on a melting planet.
Circular Systems wants to change that. Its Agraloop Bio-Refinery is turning agricultural waste into high-value textiles without the prodigious amounts of harsh chemicals, water and energy that a more conventional viscose system demands. (The resulting Agraloop BioFibre, as Nichelson is keen to underscore, is not viscose-rayon but rather a natural fiber that demonstrates there is no waste in nature.)
Instead of liquifying wood pulp into a cellulose soup, Agraloop uses proprietary “clean chemistry” to dissolve the lignins and pectins that lock plant cell walls in place and extract the remaining filament. Eventually, all of that biochemistry, plus the bio-energy that powers the process, will stem from the plants themselves, creating a truly closed-loop system where inputs are recaptured and recirculated and the only effluent is a natural fertilizer that can be fed back to promote soil health.