The Biomimicry Institute has been awarded €2.5 million to lead a multi-year initiative called Design for Decomposition. By embracing true decomposition — the way organic matter breaks down — the initiative will demonstrate scalable new pathways for the ~92 million tonnes of fashion waste discarded annually. The project is an ambitious follow-up to the Institute's 2020 report, The Nature of Fashion, which identified decomposition as the missing link in the sector’s sustainability efforts.

Together with the Laudes Foundation, the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA), the Yale Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering, the Metabolic Institute, The OR Foundation, and Celery Design, the Biomimicry Institute will pilot technologies that convert wasted clothes and textiles into biocompatible raw materials.

The multi-year initiative will host pilots in Western Europe and Ghana, testing the most viable decomposition technologies that are commercially viable but have yet to scale.

The initiative begins with a deep dive into biological research about the various types and circumstances of natural decomposition, then matches those approaches to the hundreds of known decomposition technologies to determine which most closely model nature.

In the pilot phase, these approaches will be tested in Accra, Ghana — which receives about 15 million used garments each week; and in cities with more established waste-management infrastructure, such as Amsterdam or Berlin. 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," explained Dr. Paul Anastas, Director of the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering at Yale. "Our goal is to close that gap."

To avert some of the worst effects of a global industry that produces 100 billion garments each year for a population of 7.5 billion, a new approach is needed for the fashion sector. In the last 25 years, the amount of clothing bought in the EU per person has increased by 40 percent, following a sharp fall in prices. Europeans on average discard about 11 kilos of clothing every year — with some used items shipped overseas to places such as Accra, but about 87 percent incinerated or landfilled, including 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.

"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. The North Star is not a shirt that becomes another shirt, but a shirt that subsidizes the regenerative fashion system we all know is possible."

Catalytic funding has come from Laudes Foundation — which supports brave, innovative efforts that inspire and challenge the fashion and textile industry to harness its power for good.

“Demonstrating that decomposition can put fashion back into natural resource cycles will be a powerful proof point for fashion and its allied industries, and a bold step towards reversing the environmental damage the industry has created thus far," said Anita Chester, Head of Materials at Laudes Foundation. "We are thrilled to support this consortium led by Biomimicry Institute, and eagerly await the results of their game-changing pilots to scale bio-compatible solutions for the fashion industry at large."

More than a third of all microplastic pollution — some 500,000 tonnes — is released each year from clothing, most ending up in oceans. While plant-based alternatives to fabrics such as leather and nylon are growing in popularity, over 60 percent of garments are still plastic-based (think polyester, nylon, acrylic, fleece, spandex) and nearly all apparel is made with toxic processes, dyes and coatings. And while circular solutions for fashion and textile waste are also proliferating, at least extending the useful life of the materials, the question the initiative is hoping to answer is: What will this post-consumer waste decompose into that is not hazardous? All decomposition technologies will be screened through this lens, thanks to 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 Metabolic Institute’s Savanna Browne-Wilkinson. "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."

After proving that advanced decomposition is viable locally, the partnership plans to prove that this system change can scale globally. Reflecting on the scale of the problem and the goals of the initiative to address this volume, Ed win Keh, CEO of HKRITA, remarked: "It doesn't get much more ambitious than this."

The consortium is looking for more partners, technologies, pilot sites and funders who want to tackle post-consumer fashion waste. To learn more or contribute to the project, please visit d4d.biomimicry.org.