If you’re returning old yoga pants or sneakers, remember that the polyester in them can be biodegraded back into their constituent parts and used to make new ones. By the way, so many things.

This is the goal of biotech startup Cavios and many famous sportswear manufacturers. Patagonia, Puma, Salomon and others are partnering with French startups to spur the commercialization of bio-recycling technology for textiles.

The consortium’s goal is to create the first commercially viable fiber-to-fiber polyester recycling system. This system has the potential to greatly help the industry transition to a sustainable and archetypal model.

“They can use plastics to make fibers, but they don’t have a solution for fiber-to-fiber recycling,” said Emmanuel Ladent, CEO of Cavios.

The world’s first commercial-scale PET-based plastic biorecycling plant is being built and operated simultaneously by Kavios and PET manufacturer Indorama Ventures in Runeville, a commune (or township) in the Meurte et Moselle region, France. The facility, which will open in 2025, will recycle plastic waste in the surrounding area.

PET, a petroleum-derived polymer, is widely used in daily necessities such as PET bottles, carpets, and textiles. PET, also known as polyester in the textile industry, is rapidly overtaking cotton as the most widely used fiber on the planet.

Clothing, exercise equipment, and footwear are made from a variety of fabrics, including polyester. In addition to closures such as buttons, zippers and tags, the fabric is often combined with other materials such as cotton. The complex processes used for clothes and shoes make recycling them difficult. Brands often claim that their products contain “sea” or “sea-bound” plastic when the “recycled polyester” they use comes from plastic bottles and not used clothing.

However, despite reducing the number of single-use plastics that reach incinerators, landfills and the ocean, this approach does not address the huge problem of post-consumer waste generated by the fashion industry. Each year, more than 34 billion pounds of unused clothing are thrown away in the United States.

“True Prototype” Solution Proposed

Carbiose uses one of the few microorganisms discovered by various researchers in favor of PET. To make PET break down at higher temperatures, which are softer, the company’s researchers accelerated an enzyme found in the compost.

Carbios claims that it is possible to recover almost all of the polyester found in textile waste, including blended fabrics, by selectively breaking down polyester materials. In addition, the molecular structure of PET can be degraded through enzymatic recycling, making it possible to produce virgin-quality materials that can be recycled indefinitely. Unlike conventional recycling, which reduces the number of PET recycling and the amount of PET available for a particular product, this process does not degrade PET.

Scientists have been working on enzymes that can break down plastic for many years. Most of these enzymes were well known until the mid-2010s, but significant discoveries in this field did not occur until 2016. A research team led by microbiologist Kohei Oda discovered the Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6 bacterium outside a bottle recycling facility in Kyoto, Japan, that can not only degrade and metabolize PET, but also use PET as a key nutrient.

The evolution of two specialized enzymes has contributed greatly to the success of bacteria. Phetase (PET) catalyzes the hydrolysis of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) into shorter molecules, while metaase (MHETase) produces ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid. As a result, Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6 has the potential to significantly influence the PET manufacturing process.

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