Circular Systems co-founder and CEO Isaac Nichelson jokes that his company’s newest product, the Agraloop BioFibre, is a treasure crafted from trash. Quite literally, it is. Food waste from a handful of regions enters the Agraloop, where it is worked into fibers and yarn fit for use in clothing, upholstery, paper, packaging and beyond. This system lets the company tap into the seemingly endless stream of agricultural waste (one kilogram of food grown equals 1.5 kilograms of waste) with the intention of benefitting the environment as well as Circular Systems’ farming partners’ financial outcome. By gathering this waste instead of burning it or leaving it to rot, this abundant material (typically pineapple, banana, flax seed, hemp seed, rice or corn) can fulfill more than five times the current global fiber demand. For Circular Systems, the demand from big brands is new and, already, in a way, overwhelming.
“At this point, it’s fair to say that we will never be able to produce enough Agraloop BioFibre,” Nichelson tells us. “No matter what, there’s going to be scarcity, for many years to come because we just have to keep building these closed-loop facilities to process it all. And every time we do, the output will be sold before the plant is even finished.”
It’s vital, however, for the future of the material that Nichelson and his team continue establishing relationships with partners and clients, lobbying on behalf of its viability to consumers, and implementing waste collection processes with farmers who are more than willing to offload their crop waste. Transitioning trillion-dollar industries to sustainable material sources won’t be easy, Nichelson assures, but he’s been developing the means for doing so, from top to bottom, for more than a decade now.
“It’s easy for a consumer to become interested and want something,” he says. “It’s hard for a new supply network to be built and put together cohesively, or right. It just takes time. I hate to call human beings ‘consumers,’ but we really are, and it’s apparent that our desire for shiny new objects far outpaces our concern for having our grandchildren live in a viable world. This is the awareness that really needs to get driven home. But also that there are solutions, and they’re feasible; an awareness that there are alternatives, and that they’re viable and not just a pipe dream.”
The Agraloop BioFibre proves capable of replacing cotton in most situations. Recently, we tested the material’s first application, an H&M Conscious Exclusive Twill Shirt, over the course of two weeks. We felt little difference between this iteration and similar ones stowed in our closet. In fact, the AgraLoop BioFibre felt sturdier (albeit stiffer) than most over-shirts made using traditional materials. It didn’t drape awkwardly or rub the wrong way, nor did it react differently to typical abrasions or spills. The BioFibre felt like a successful attempt at transitioning away from harmful, wasteful raw materials.
Agraloop, though, isn’t just the final product. It is a separate entity from its output, the Agraloop BioFibre. Instead, it is a closed-loop system designed for eco-efficiency: the original fibers are dry processed; the farms use organic fertilizer; the processing centers run on bioenergy and employ recycled waste water; and the final product is born from a system that fuels itself, and produces zero waste. Plus, the system contributes to the health and wealth of the region the waste is sourced from—improving soil health (by limiting burns and lifting waste off fields), suppressing weeds, offering bioremediation and implementing a cooperative farming collaborative wherein farmers receive compensation for material that’s otherwise worthless.
“Not only does it prevent the burning and the rotting, which is another huge carbon impact, but it actually lowers the cost of the product significantly to where this could become a truly mainstreamed fiber—a resource that competes with cotton or polyester head-to-head on price and yet is really profitable for the communities that produce it,” Nichelson explains. “And that’s modeling that we’ve done and worked extensively to prove. At this point, we’re really confident in our ability to not only achieve regenerative impact but achieve extreme cost competitiveness and take this to a huge scale in the global market. It’s going to take a decade, and we do see it as a race against time. [We’ve had] a lot of conversations about how we can do this as close to open source as possible, how we can have the creation of these systems be subsidized or paid for with global foundations’ and government grant money. It all really makes sense when you look at it as a carbon drawdown machine.”
Scaling such a system comes with its own challenges, but there are also unique opportunities for branding, storytelling and profit-sharing.
“We’re looking at the kind of boutique branding model that the wine industry uses for the different years and varietals and different regional characteristics. We might have 10,000 tons of this beautiful CBD hemp fiber from Germany, which could make X millions of jeans for a certain retailer. We’d track and trace that really effectively to tell the story of what the original product was, its origins and the benefits of that fiber, and really create value around that nuanced place and situation that it came from,” he explains.
Jeans or jackets made from a particular region’s waste would be sold as such, and the source would be leveraged as its own unique marker. “Say we’ve got just 1,000 tons from some really cool, small stakeholder banana farmers in Colombia or something. [We could] tell that story and apply that to a certain brand or two and really start looking at how each one of these opportunities, when we bring the transparency into what those feedstocks are, comes to life when paired with this deep story around the origins and the people who grew those crops.”
Differences in final form can be emphasized during processing, Nichelson explains, and specific characteristics can be attributed to various waste sources. “We’re just refining the natural fiber down to its essence, to its really finest, purest, softest molecular chain,” he explains. “When you do that, you’re getting it to a point where it will have really different characteristics of stiffness or softness or slightly different colors. [Those happen] when you’re not whitening and brightening it with different safe means that we use. That’s another thing to leverage there but there is generally, by and large, a lot of consistency in these bast and feedstocks. We know what kinds of yarns we can make with the different versions, and the different grades that we extract from different types of crops. There’s a consistency within the chaos, yes, but it is still really nuanced and there’s so much opportunity there.”
Images courtesy of Circular Systems