The British designer is working with plastic recycling company Protein Evolution Inc to create recyclable resources from polyester and nylon textile waste.
Photo: Christina Fragkou
Stella McCartney has partnered with recycling startup Protein Evolution Inc (PEI) on a new venture that aims to tackle one of the fashion industry’s biggest circularity challenges: how to transform nylon and polyester waste into “good-as-new” fibres.
Beginning in 2023, PEI will use its proprietary recycling technology to process leftover mixed nylon and polyester from Stella McCartney’s collections into new material for use in new clothing, footwear or other products, which PEI says can then be recycled again, indefinitely.
“Through our partnership with Protein Evolution Inc, we hope to pioneer a new type of polyester from old materials,” said the brand’s namesake designer McCartney in a statement. “Establishing climate goals is one thing; taking meaningful steps toward a more sustainable future is what truly matters.”
It is notoriously difficult to recycle plastic-based fabrics like polyester and nylon for reuse in fashion because they quickly degrade. PEI, which was founded in 2021, uses AI and synthetic biology to engineer enzymes, which are used to break down textiles and plastic into their basic chemical building blocks so they can be used to make new materials, theoretically allowing the resources to become infinitely reusable. McCartney invested in PEI through the $200 million Collab SOS financing package she helped to launch in partnership with Collaborative Fund in August. (Collaborative Fund invests in companies working towards sustainable solutions for materials, ingredients, energy and supply chains.)
Sampling of Stella McCartney materials that will be processed by PEI’s technology. Photo: Courtesy of Protein Evolution Inc
“We’re honoured to partner with Stella McCartney on this ambitious and hopefully groundbreaking effort,” says Connor Lynn, Protein Evolution Inc co-founder and chief business officer, who set up the company with fellow Yale University alumnus Scott Stankey, in partnership with scientist and entrepreneur Dr Jonathan Rothberg. “Together we’re setting out to accomplish something that’s never been done at an industrial scale before, and we’re just getting started.”
Currently, the enzymes used for bio-recycling polyester are unable to break down chemicals that were added to materials during manufacturing or finishing. However, PEI says its technology has the ability to engineer enzymes to break down any given material, so as the technology is developed, it expects to be able to “harvest” chemicals from the fabrics being recycled, or convert them into “safe waste”. It adds that it collects any byproducts of the reaction, such as salts used in laundry detergents, and supplies them back to the chemicals industry or feeds them back into the recycling process.
Microplastics are another potential concern, but the company says the recycling process itself does not release microplastics because the materials not dissolved in the process are collected for reprocessing or disposal. The recycled polyester is identical to new polyester, so the risk that it will shed microfibres “will not be increased” but will “be the same as with virgin polyester materials”, says Lynn. Lynn emphasises that the company’s main goal is to help decarbonise the chemicals industry and that “every aspect” of its process aims to increase circularity.
“Our proprietary biological recycling process has the power to enable circularity efforts across the textile industry,” says Stankey, who is chief technology officer as well as co-founder. “By partnering with Stella McCartney, we are able to test our platform in a real-world setting and collectively learn how to seamlessly integrate PEI’s technology into existing manufacturing processes. This collaboration will ultimately demonstrate for the first time how complex fabric types, such as nylon and polyester blends, can be fully re-used to make new plastic material in a low-energy, cost-effective way.”
It’s not the first time McCartney has launched a material innovation in collaboration with a startup she has invested in. During Paris Fashion Week in October 2021, the brand launched its first-ever mushroom leather bag in collaboration with Bolt Threads, which has received investment from the Collab SOS fund as well as the Mylo Consortium, a reported seven-figure investment deal from Stella McCartney, Adidas, Lululemon and Kering. Material innovation company Natural Fiber Welding, which worked with Allbirds to create its first plastic-free plant-based leather sneaker, is another recipient of the Collab SOS fund.