Food waste is going to take over the fashion industry

The startup Circular Systems is pioneering new tech to convert food crop waste

[Source Photos: Vasilina Popova/Getty Images, Grahamphoto23/iStock]

The startup Circular Systems is pioneering new tech to convert food crop waste–like banana peels and hemp stalks–into wearable fibers.

Around the world, people eat around 100 billion bananas every year. That creates around 270 million tons of waste–from peels to stalks–which are often burned or left to rot. Crop burning pollutes the air, and rotting releases methane into the atmosphere and contributes to global warming.

Isaac Nichelson, a three-decade veteran of the sustainable fashion industry, learned of the magnitude of this waste and saw an opportunity. Food crop waste like banana by-products, pineapple leaves, flax and hemp stalk, and the waste from crushing sugar cane can be collected and spun into a natural fiber that can be woven into garments. While this concept is progressive, it’s really a reversion to the past–as recently as 1960, 97% of the fibers we used in garments and materials were naturally derived. Today, it’s only around 35%.

Through his new materials startup Circular Systems, which converts these natural waste fibers into usable materials, Nichelson wants to set the fashion industry on a new path toward more sustainable production and sourcing. Circular Systems was recently awarded a $350,000 Global Change Award grant from the H&M Foundation to scale up its operations, and it has partnerships in the works with global brands like H&M and Levis to integrate its sustainable fibers into their operations.

Circular Systems comprises three technologies. There’s the Agraloop Bio-Refinery, a proprietary system that transforms crop waste into textiles. The same farmers and producers who harvest the crops can own and use Agraloop systems to create additional revenue for themselves, and put their excess waste to use. “We want to enable food crops to become our primary fibers,” Nichelson says. Just those five key waste products, he adds, offer around 250 million tons of fiber each year, and could meet 2.5 times the global demand for fiber currently.