The Biomimicry Institute, a not-for-profit organization based in the U.S., is launching a multi-year initiative called "Design for Decomposition." It aims to demonstrate the extent to which natural decomposition processes - such as how leaves break down into soil to build healthy ecosystems - can act as new scalable pathways in the disposal of fashion waste.
The initiative is a follow-up to the Institute's "The Nature of Fashion" report in 2020, which identified decomposition as the missing link for the sector. "Nature has primary producers, consumers, and decomposers, and all rely on dispersal, entropy. Without all three there is no cadence to life," said Beth Rattner, Executive Director for the Biomimicry Institute. "If the fashion sector is going to be a force for good on the planet, it has to follow the same laws of nature."
Together with various partners (the Laudes Foundation, the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel, the Yale Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering, the Metabolic Institute, the OR Foundation, and Celery Design), the Biomimicry Institute aims to test technologies that convert old clothes and textiles into biocompatible raw materials.
The multi-year project will conduct pilot projects in Western Europe and Ghana, testing the most viable decomposition technologies that are commercially viable but not yet ready for large-scale deployment. Initially, types of natural decomposition will be matched with diverse known decomposition technologies to determine which best replicate nature. In the pilot phase, these approaches will be tested in Accra, Ghana, where about 15 million old clothes are generated each week, according to the Biomimicry Institute, as well as in a city like Amsterdam or Berlin with a more developed waste management infrastructure.
Simultaneously, researchers at Yale will be taking a hard look at what really decomposes and how. "Determining the rate or speed at which molecules degrade in the environment is of crucial importance to assess risks to our own health and health of the environment. While experiments to assess the biodegradation of chemicals when in the environment have been developed and are routinely carried out, these have several limitations that make it hard to predict the fate of chemicals and materials in the 'real' environment. Our goal is to close that gap," explained Dr. Paul Anastas, Director of the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering at Yale.
According to the Institutes data, Europeans on average discard about 11 kilos of clothing every year, with some used items shipped overseas to places like Accra but about 87% incinerated or landfilled, including the donated clothes people were hoping would have a second owner. But with landfills closing, new ones too costly to make, and incinerators under scrutiny for carbon emissions, a new option—or a very old one—is increasingly necessary.
Furthermore, more than a third of all microplastic pollution—some 500,000 tonnes—are released each year from clothing, most ending up in oceans. Knowing that over 60% of garments are plastic-based and nearly all apparel is made with toxic processes, dyes, and coatings, the foremost question in the initiative is: what will this post-consumer waste decompose into that is not hazardous? All decomposition technologies are being screened through this lens, and the team has engaged toxicology partners from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, University of Ghana, and Yale.
"The end-of-life management of waste is a huge and complex problem that sits at the interface of the biosphere and the technosphere. We must find alternative pathways for handling the myriad of natural and synthetic materials embodied in the products we consume," said Savanna Browne-Wilkinson of Metabolic Institute. "This is a critical and under-represented part of the current discourse on industrial transformation and will play an important role in how we design a regenerative, inclusive, and circular bioeconomy."