A climate technology startup – and Earthshot Prize finalist – designs a new method to reduce clothing waste

What generally happens when clothes go out of fashion gives the fashion industry a bad look.

“The fashion and textile industry is one of the most wasteful industries in the world,” says Conor Hartman, director of operations for Cir, a climate technology startup trying to reshape the clothing industry. “The world produces more than 100 million tonnes of textiles every 12 months. This is equivalent in weight to one million Boeing 757s.”

According to United Nations Environment Programmethat the fashion industry is responsible for around 10% of annual planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, mainly through the manufacture and transport of clothing. That is more than the emissions from all international air travel and shipping combined. And The World Bank reports that due to the growth of cheap, trendy clothing called “fast fashion”, these emissions are expected to increase by more than 50% by 2030.

Some used clothes are exported abroad, where they are piled up on the west coasts of Africa or dumped in the deserts of Chile. “Most of it ends up in landfills or incineration,” Hartman said. “There’s a garbage truck of fashion trash being dumped every second of every day.”

According to Ellen MacArthur Foundationthe average piece of clothing in the US is now used only seven times, and globally less than 1% of textile waste is recycled back into textiles.

That’s because most of our clothes are a mix of cotton and polyester (mainly plastic), making them almost impossible to recycle. But at a pilot plant in Danville, Virginia—once a busy hub for textiles and tobacco—the Circ team cracked the code and devised a way to separate the two through a chemical process.

“Our process, for lack of a better term, is a pressure cooker,” Hartman said. “It’s a very fancy insta-pot.”

The chemical reaction liquefies the polyester while the cotton remains intact. The liquid polyester turns into plastic shavings, and both materials can then be used to make new clothes.

Circ, an Earthshot Prize finalist, has found a solution to the clothing industry’s significant environmental waste and pollution by recycling the plastic from cotton-polyester clothing.

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Circ had first focused on turning tobacco leaves into biofuels, then repurposed the technology to figure out how to recycle polycotton clothing. “It took our science team a couple of weeks to put the pieces together,” Hartman said. “We released the very first consumer products derived from polycotton waste. It was a four-part collection that Zara designed.”

Circ also collaborates with Patagoniais backed by Bill Gates’ Groundbreaking energy projects, and has now attracted the attention of the future King of England. Circ is a finalist for $1.2 million The Earthshot Award — annual prices presented by Prince William for solutions to the world’s most pressing environmental problems.

Hartman said: “To get this level of recognition for a solution that we know will be the future is really inspiring for us.”

Circ plans to open their first industrial-scale factory in 2026 and replicate them around the world, recycling billions of pieces of clothing.

Hartman said his hope is to stop clothes being dumped or incinerated: “Absolutely, because we have all the clothes we need to make all the clothes we’ll ever need.”

The Earthshot awards will be presented at a ceremony in Singapore on Tuesday. The event will be streamed live on Youtube.

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