Fixing Fashion’s Fiber Waste Problem – E15

Really interesting chat with Peter Majeranowski, CEO of Tyton Biosciences which uses biotechnology to recycle cotton and polyester for nearly complete re-use in fashion. We discussed how Tyton started as a develop of biofuels, how their technique differs from conventional fabric recycling, how regulators are thinking about the new circular economy, the ways celebrities can have a positive impact on sustainable fashion, whether we should have carbon labeling of fabrics, how Peter’s background as a US naval officer was the beginning of his passion for sustainability and more!

Here is the audio. The excerpts below are lightly edited:

MCWALTER: Could you tell us a little bit about Tyton BioScience?

MAJERANOWSKI: Tyton BioSciences is bringing to market new technology that can recycle textiles AND apparel. We specifically target polyester, cotton or poly cotton blends.

MCWALTER:  What drove the initial decision to start Tyton BioSciences?

MAJERANOWSKI: It’s a bit of a journey; a family friend approached me who was a very famous scientist who invented the first polio vaccine, Dr. Hilary Koprowski. He started his own plant science foundation and had a wonderful variant of tobacco that could be used for making biofuels, but he needed help commercializing it. At the time I was working in finance, and I thought this would be a fun opportunity to really build something and make a difference so I helped them start the company. We needed to develop a platform, or technology that could extract all the goodies from the tobacco. And that’s where my cofounder Iulian came in. We started Tyton almost by accident to help commercialize that. And about three years ago, someone approached us and said, “Can you extract anything of value from textiles using your platform?” And we did and quickly realized that there was a market for that. Suddenly we started getting cold calls from major consumer brands, and we knew we were onto something. 

When we see a closet full of clothing, we see it as molecules and cellulose is one of them. And the other one is the monomers that make polyester. Traditionally, cellulose is coming from cotton or tree pulp processes. And the polyester monomers are coming from the oil and gas industry. We’re able to leave those resources in nature, and instead extract those same resources from our landfill-bound waste, and putting it back into the fashion economy.

MCWALTER: How much fabric are you processing today?

MAJERANOWSKI:  I should point out that we’re still scaling the technology. At the beginning of 2020, we were at the kilograms a day level. And now we’re on track to be at the tonne per day level by the end of this year. We’re flexible, of course, but I could see our technology being deployed close to both the end markets, like the United States and also close to the manufacturing hubs in Asia or Central America, because textiles, specifical apparel is very wasteful. You have about 50% loss of raw materials from the beginning through the end of the supply chain — just the final step of cutting and sewing loses 15-20% because you’re cutting patterns out of squares or rectangles. So being close to the manufacturing hub, we’d love to be able to take all that waste and put it right back into the supply chain so that we can make clothing closer to a 99 or 98% yield versus a 50% yield.

MCWALTER:   How close to price parity is your process vs traditional fabric recycling? 

MAJERANOWSKI: It’s a primary concern, because when the economics hang together and you can create a new market for a thing, invisible hands will really move things fast and accelerate it. So to make something truly sustainable, pun intended, I think the economics have to be very good and that means price parity. And so we are projecting to have price parity or near price parity as we scale and that’s mainly because we have very high recovery yields approaching 90% with both cotton and polyester and we can even process the very hard to deal with poly cotton blends. 

MCWALTER:  How are regulators responding to new economic models like circular economy fashion?

MAJERANOWSKI:  It’s very early days but we’re seeing it more and more in Europe. I think last year the UK, proposed a one pence tax on all clothing in order to fund a recycling fund. It didn’t go through, but you’re seeing things like that in France, where clothing brands can no longer landfill or incinerate clothing.  I think that’s part of the motivation for brands to be looking at solutions like ours because they’re afraid that regulation may be around the corner. 

MCWALTER:  How are apparel brands measuring their sustainability?  

MAJERANOWSKI:   Every major brand now has a pretty robust sustainability team. There’s usually a lifecycle assessment (LCA) expert. And so we’ve done an LCA and as it stands now, our LCA is is quite positive. But that, you know, will always be a dynamic thing that we continue to update and upgrade as we scale. But to your exact question, “how do you measure these things”, LCA is just one piece of the puzzle, you also want to make sure that you’re not using chemistry that causes more harm than good which might not be measured by an LCA. A lot of brands are very cognizant of that and are starting to look at better tools to measure sustainability.

MCWALTER:  Should apparel be carbon labelled to help consumers make more informed decisions?

MAJERANOWSKI:   No one’s ever asked me that before, but I think it makes a lot of sense. The labels that we have right now are generally some care instructions, and maybe information on the fiber. But a study in Europe found think 40% of labels are inaccurate on your clothing. That shows you how hard it would be to have an accurate labeling system in regard to environmental impact, but I love the idea. It’s, it’s just like, with food, right? It gives choice to consumers, do I know this is high in fat, but I’m gonna go for it anyway. It helps people own their choices. And so the concept is great but implementation is going to be hard. We’re gonna have to really think about that.

MCWALTER:  I’ve been slightly surprised by the lack of celebrity involvement with how climate and fashion intersect, how do you see it?

MAJERANOWSKI:  I think celebrity plays a huge part in fashion and it would be great to see more celebrity involvement in advocating for sustainability. You’re starting to see some, Emma Watson comes to mind, she’s made it a real central issue, there have been a few others, but I would love to see more celebrity behind it. 

I think maybe it’s just a little bit of a lack of awareness. I live and breathe this every day and so I’m always thinking about it. But when I go to cocktail parties, or when I used to be able to come to cocktail parties, and I talk about what I do, people are really shocked to hear about the impact of fashion. And, and so it’s a really interesting thing because fashion is how we really express ourselves, it’s how we kind of put on the cover to our book and project who we are to people. And so when people come to realize that that projection is really very harmful, that it might be contrary to their own personal brand there is an opportunity to increase awareness and that will help get us to the major groundswell that we need to make changes.

MCWALTER:   What in your background led you to focus on sustainability?

MAJERANOWSKI: A very unlikely place, the Navy, I was a naval officer for six years. And two seeds were planted in my brain. The first was when I was on my first ship boarding vessels that were smuggling oil out of Iraq. And I remember thinking, one night, when I was on one of those smuggled ships you know, we risked so much treasure and blood for a natural resource that often is in the hands of some bad actors. And so I thought there had to be a better way and a cleaner way. 

The second seed was planted by thinking through the power of economics to move things in a positive way. Specifically, that came from a tour I had in the Pentagon, where I ended up in Iraq and part of the Coalition Provisional Authority working in private sector development, trying to figure out how to jumpstart the private sector in Iraq in order to really helped the country and move them along a positive pathway. That did not go as planned, but that’s really where my passion came from. And now it’s my favorite thing, combining policy, economics and the environment. And so I wake up every day fired up to make Tyton a big success and to commercialize our tech and help our planet.

MCWALTER:  How is the US military thinking in terms of decarbonization?

MAJERANOWSKI:   Definitely, it is. As I mentioned, we started our roots in biofuels and the military has pushed for a long time, biofuels and alternative energy because they see that as a major strategic initiative that they don’t want to have to rely on oil. Of course, now we have increased domestic production but that’s not a forever thing. And so, the military has been great in terms of looking at biofuel and funding a lot of research in that space. They also look a lot at preferred materials. And so there’s been a lot of money and pure research money coming out of the US military in terms of preferred materials, recycling, recycling of textiles, specifically because you also don’t want uniforms to get into the wrong hands and they need to be fully disposed of. In general, the military has shown a lot of leadership in this space.

MCWALTER:  It had never struck me, but yeah, uniform recycling across the top two or three largest militaries in the world, I mean, that’s a billion dollar company right there!

Decarbonizing waste with insects – E11

Very enjoyable chat with Olympia Yarger, CEO of Goterra a company using insects for sustainable waste management. We discussed the amazing merging of insect and technology that allows the decentraliztion of waste management across cities, why finding under serviced customers is key to early adoption,  how important it is for startups to build vertically integrated supply chains, how insects are going to be an essential part of the future food supply, how growing up around farming influences your perspective and more!

Here is the audio. The excerpts below are lightly edited:

MCWALTER: Could you tell us a little bit about Goterra?

YARGER: Goterra started as an attempt to create a sustainable agricultural enterprise with free range chickens. I was looking to reduce the cost of chicken feed and so looked at insects as chicken feed. And then I realized that insects on their own were quite an enterprise. They need all your attention, oddly enough, and so I ended up working mostly with insects. My thinking changed to asking how we could leverage this unique animal to disrupt the supply chain problem. Because even if we feed animals insects you still need to build a big intake farm and you’ve just replicaed the same problem we have with industrial farming, which is the supply and transport logistics of moving feed around. So I came up with the idea of creating farms that could be colocated with where the waste was created, or at the very least decentralized to reduce the transportation and logistics challenge. And suddenly I realized I was now in the waste management business. So that’s what we do. We build modular infrastructure that houses and manages insects while they consume waste. And we sell back the byproducts back to agriculture or as pet food.

MCWALTER: Where are the modules located? Would they sit next to a restaurant?

YARGER: it’s a volume game. Our standard modular units handle five tons of waster per day. That means that to colocate the unit, you would want a high volume of waste being created. Waste by and large is measured by the number of bin lifts per kilometer.  So if you can put the food waste management facility really close by you reduce the bin lifts per kilometer and you’ve actually solved the problem. So we can put our units next to transit stations which means the truck is driving a smaller route and still lifting the same amount of bins and you’ve reduced that kilometer per lift amount.

MCWALTER: What was Goterra’s first MVP like?

YARGER: So many iterations! The first small scale was finding maggots in my compost bin and trying to get them to live inside a plastic tent. We look back now and we’re like, how rudimentary and how silly, but early evolutions are going to feel like that right? But then you immediately go into trying to improve that. And so, it’s been an ongoing iteration of things. We are at version three of the actual unit now.

MCWALTER: Who were your early customers?

YARGER: They were all businesses that were focusing or interested in being participatory with sustainable practice as part of their core mission. There was a government program that businesses could sign up for to help manage and reduce their electricity consumption and other sorts of sustainably driven efforts. That was where we found our early adopters.

MCWALTER: What was the reaction of those early adopters to using insects for waste management?

YARGER: It’s funny, right? Australians, hate flies as part of our culture. Everybody doesn’t like flies, that’s true. But Australians can actually sing the words to a fly spray advertisement, that’s the level of dislike we have for flies. So you would expect a fairly strong cultural bias against anything that involves a fly or maggot. But because we started with really willing clients, they were just fascinated by what we could do and most of them were motivated by the fact that other composting opportunities either didn’t service clients as small as them. And so that sustainability focus and the fact no one else was solving the problem of small scale waste management were the two motivators for our early users.

MCWALTER: The actual units themselves, can you see into them?

YARGER: It is a beautiful blue box that nobody gets to see inside. Which is kind of a hard thing to do as a founder. You battle with your own imposter syndrome anyway, but it is especially difficult to build something so cool and then be like so this is a really cool box, but you cannot see inside it! I think that actually makes sense though because people don’t really want to know how their waste is managed. They’re not really interested though on occasion we do get requests for viewing windows as some people want to watch the maggots do their eating! Maybe that’s a cool plugin we can add as a feature later on.

MCWALTER: What is the main advantage compared to traditional composting?

YARGER: Definitely speed – our food waste is consumed daily. The second part is the agility as you cannot make a traditional composting facility smaller than it is. And it generally has be located on a large piece of arable land which means it’s always going to be out of town. You can’t put a composting facility in the middle of Sydney. While we can handle waste in smaller amounts which allows us to decentralize the management capability.

MCWALTER: What are your thoughts on vertically integrating your own supply chain? 

YARGER: When you are trying to actually change something and you are building a new industry, I think you have to spend a bit more time building up and  downstream of your supply chain to be effective. You can’t just insert yourself in the middle of an existing supply chain easily as you are too small to be competitive. It doesn’t work that way. By integrating and understanding more about where you fit both up and down stream I think you do a better job at knowing where you belong and being able to deliver value well. Secondly, to that you aren’t going to be big enough to enter the existing supply chains exists meaningfully. And so you do have to carve yourself a space with others that feel similar about where you’re headed, but are smaller and more accommodating. 

MCWALTER: What is your primary business model?

YARGER: We use a fee for service waste management model. So you pay to use our technology by volume. So every kilo that you’re putting in is going to cost some money. 

MCWALTER: What are your plans for future expansion? 

YARGER: Bigger, better, faster, stronger! It’s a really interesting stage where you really have to think about what fast means. As a founder I didn’t expect to have to renegotiate constantly how fast we should be going. How fast is the right kind of fast? So I’m purposefully and forcefully thinking about it. We’re going to move strategically and we’re going to move purposefully, which will feel fast some days and not others. But what that means in real terms and not just in startup speak is will be expanding into New South Wales and we’ll be moving into Queensland by the end of this year, and then we expect to sort of continue that emergence into the other Australian states over the course of next year. I expect to be international by the end of next year, and we will continue to grow by region moving forward. Exciting!

MCWALTER: Is there a role to play for Goterra in terms of decarbonization?

YARGER: The very act of how insects manage food waste reduces the amount of methane gas and co2 emissions. I think there’s opportunities for both direct  reduction but also to leverage those reductions for offsets, particularly for manufacturing operations who are struggling to deliver reductions in their own enterprise for example in aviation. If we manage all the waste at an airport, can we deliver an interesting percentage of carbon offset against what is happening as planes operate out of that airport? 

There’s also carbon sequestering to return nutrients and carbon back to the soil and and track carbon through the growing of plants and trees and things like that. What I really want to focus on moving forward is how we can actually understand this more completely. Like, what does one of our units actually deliver in CO2 reduction.

MCWALTER: How do you think about balancing scaling and learning as you grow?

YARGER: Some of the best things we tried to bring with us on this journey is understanding that there were clients who nobody else would service. And because nobody else would service them we had to build a business model from scratch. And if you go too quick you may lose those insights. And miss out on opportunities to grow your business in a way that actually is so much more meaningful and delivers a much higher return.

MCWALTER: What are your thoughts on insects as a protein source? 

YARGER: When I look at Australia, we’re sort of this canary in the coal mine on the climate story, right? We don’t have a good climate or regularity with water and the droughts are getting longer and closer together. And it’s hotter. No agriculture can survive at over 45 degrees (110 F) outside doesn’t matter if it’s a plant or an animal. So indoor agriculture is going to have to be examined and looked at because it doesn’t matter what kind of regenerative agriculture you’re doing. If it’s 45 degrees outside, stuff’s gonna die, or at least lose productivity.  So I think insects have a really unique opportunity because we can grow large quantities of protein in very, very small areas. And we can do it inside. 

A Circular Cup Economy – E7

Such a fun conversation with Safia Qureshi, CEO and founder of CupClub, a maker of reusable packaging being used by major NextGen consortium brands like Starbucks. We discussed the future of materials, the circular economy, how Safia’s background in architecture and design influenced her approach, the importance of research and user testing, why transparency is so important when it comes to sustainability, the importance of London towards the development of cutting edge design and more!’

Here is the audio. The excerpts below are lightly edited:

MCWALTER: Can you tell us a little bit about CupClub?

QURESHI: CupClub I founded in 2015. It started with me wanting to consume food and beverages on the go without having to use any form of single use packaging. So I was very passionate about building a more sustainable way to distribute food and beverages and I thought there needs to be a better way than what we’re currently doing. And so I started with the drinks industry because it’s by far one of the highest volume in consumption of single use packaging.

MCWALTER: During the early days what research did you engage in?

QURESHI: We put together research across the whole user experience, starting from the consumer and understanding the landscape of the issue. So how big is this market? Why do people currently use what they use and would they prefer something better? I’ve always been a big believer in empathy when it comes to designing and thinking through all the various stakeholders that are going to be a part of this user journey. There is the end user but then also the retailer. For example observing, why do baristas love single use cups? What are the things that are so fantastic about it operationally? It is really important not to ignore those points. And if you want to try and swap out for new cups, the level of optimization required simply because of the speed with which things move really has to be thought through. So empathetically looking at baristas, people who are serving in fast food, retail, understanding order times and fraction of seconds, things like that and then moving through the whole landscape map. 

Also we observed, waste companies, if something like CupClub was to come around, what would be their reaction? So there’s a lot of consideration to be made and of course if I’m an architect by training so I’m very well versed with working with people who don’t want to be in the same room quite usually, planners, engineers etc. Everyone’s trying to make sure that their form of the vision is accepted and implemented and so everyone’s coming at this with their own vested interests and usually the architect is trying to balance all the voices in the room. Because our ultimate aim is to design for well being. 

MCWALTER: In terms of getting that understanding, were you sitting in the likes of Starbucks and taking notes with a stopwatch?

QURESHI:  Yeah, absolutely. And I actually put a really interesting team together in the early stages to just do research very thoroughly for the first six to eight weeks and we synthesized all of these observations. This is across all of the stakeholders. Then we produced some samples and test products that we then put into the London design festival and invited the public to come and see it and give us their feedback. We wanted to engage people with this idea in real time to see what are their reactions? Not giving them a lot of time or information just confronting them with something  It’s harder to get that sort of data if you’ve put people in a room and paid them. Or if you’ve prepared them with some material, they’ll come at it with certain biases. Or they’ll say things like, of course, I’ll be willing to pay five pounds extra for the subscription, and then the ultimate answer is no. So yeah, there’s a lot of those aspects to understand. And so we boiled all that down, we did a series of pop ups, and then that led us to small pilots, which then led us to bigger implementation, and then we got some funding and then we scaled.

MCWALTER: What’s the main changes in people’s approach to sustainability in the last five years? Is it mostly driven by the consumer or large enterprises?

QURESHI: It’s a very good question. It takes a village. If you think of it from the highest level with the MacArthur Foundation setting of really interesting vision for the circular economy, and then you come down to so that’s kind of the more specific NGOs have been talking about this for many, many decades, but we had one that was dedicated specifically around optimization of products reusability. Then you also had figures like David Attenborough, who, with their work on nature focused documentaries and but a fantastic platform to create awareness in people. There are now generations born with his voice in their mind when watching nature documentaries. So when you hear a voice like that tell you things that you’re not really expecting in 2017, and we saw this awakening of consumer conscience and awareness. And that led to a lot of corporates starting to realize that they had to make a change. The problem’s around sustainability was actually always very evident when it came to the corporate side. Every business operating in this space was very fully aware of recycling rates and the pollution crisis; they just didn’t do anything. And their argument would be to hide behind the consumer not caring. And so in 2017, the moment that happened, we saw this immense backlash. And that culminated in a lot of things moving a lot faster for us when it came to consumer packaging.

MCWALTER:  Are large brands typically creating their packaging in house and so are you, in essence, competing with internal processes or more with old school competitors that are out there in the world?

QURESHI:  That’s a good question. The brands themselves don’t make the packaging per se. But they will order it specific to their needs. So that that’s kind of how it works. The brands will then be working with some form of waste company that might be collecting that product and sending it for recycling. And their interest might be or might not be to try and obtain the recycled materials so that they can come back into their supply chain. And then they sometimes mix in the middle distributors who might be moving the product from the manufacturers to retailers depending on their size. So that’s the current linear economy model.  Versus the likes of us come along with the circular economy approach and we say to a brand we’re going to produce a product designed for durability and reuse and we’re going to optimize it and track each item as opposed to on a SKU basis. And then we will integrate this into your existing technology systems.

MCWALTER: If you can go into the supply chain, what is the life of a cup from CupClub?

QURESHI:  Products are manufactured and distributed depending on region. The UK and the US are the two areas of operations with beverage containers of varying sizes from eight ounce up to 20 ounce. Essentially once it’s in circulation, it will make its way to a retail outlet. The retailer will set it up internally and a customer will come in and order, they get the option for reuse. And it’s at that moment depending on the varying degree of technology requirements in store. Instead of taking away a single use, they take this reusable and when they’re finished, they drop it back to any of the drop points network that we are servicing across the city. Those are usually in stores or at the entrance to major public banks or airports, for example. You drop it back into one of those drop points and that customer journey is finished. We then collect the cup, bring it back to our washing depot where it’s sanitized, washed, dried, and then sent back to the retailer. And so typically each product has a lifecycle. It’s designed for 1000 uses, but we typically use it for 250 and then it goes into end of life recycling. So we then bulk collect them, bail them, and then when they’ve reached a certain capacity, we send them for recycling. And both our products that we use for materials are the most highly valuable and recyclable plastics within the ecosystem. So we had to design materials that also had a reusability.

MCWALTER: Looking at your website, you put up your sustainability report from a couple of years ago, and I absolutely loved the transparency. You mentioned that it’s 250 reuses. How many reuses does it need to meet the same carbon impact of disposable cups?

QURESHI:  66. We were happy to publish the sustainability report and lead by example. So the methodology is very much following the journey of the product from the material selection, through to manufacturing and shipment to whichever geography it is in. We are more conservative with some of our methodology and so the number we target to have 50% lower carbon footprint is a cup reused 132 times. 

MCWALTER: It sounds like you have been very UK focused, but I think there were some big moves into the US in the last six months?

QURESHI:  Yeah, it’s been super hectic and very exciting. We were selected as one out of like four to 500 businesses globally, by the NextGen Cup Challenge consortium of brands which includes Starbucks, McDonald’s, Coke, Yum brands, Nestle and Wendy’s. They were excited about the opportunity to work and reuse and come up with alternatives that would enable them to improve their supply chains, reduce their consumption, etc. We were selected and invited to launch in the US market. So that was a good growth opportunity for us. And that’s what brought us to launch in March 2020 across the bay area. And to test this, we collaborated with local cafes on the ground. For example, the technology functionality, the full in-store experience and we worked with IDEO’s research team on the ground to help us synthesize and record all the data as well. So super fun and really exciting. And all just before COVID. So luckily, we managed to get all of that done before things got a bit hairy.

MCWALTER:  Do you think that there will be a mass banning of disposable items at some point in the future?

QURESHI:  It has started already. The European legislation produced quite an extensive documentation around this. They started with the research, which then led them to identify key items that they wanted to phase out. And then a timeline against it. So exactly when and how and what the grace periods would be for different brands and businesses to adopt this. And so it’s not a matter of if, it’s it’s more a case of exactly when is this going to happen.  And this is something that we are acutely aware of and quite we discussed this quite a lot in the team is how do we avoid the same mistakes that we have seen in the recycling industry. 

MCWALTER: You mentioned a little bit earlier the concept of the circular economy. What are other areas of sustainability that you think are the next to really benefit from this circular economy concept?

QURESHI:  I would say textiles are going to go through significant developments. It already is, but I’m looking for it to go into something a little bit more mainstream. So I think when it comes to the production of textiles, the way that it’s made, how it’s made, that there are so many different implications around the world supply chain.

MCWALTER:  How does your growing up in London and living in London affect your approach?

QURESHI: I guess maybe the thing about being an architect specifically in London is that we’ve had some of the best people coming through our institutions, schooling and then into practice. So if you think of the likes of the late Zaha Hadid, and you have all the amazing European architects who have contributed to thinking about cities and development. What does the future look like? So I would say the fact that you’re geographically in a space where there’s a lot of discourses, a lot of discussion and collaboration, that’s been really rewarding. So for me, the city itself offers so much but the fact that we’re, you know, at a stone’s throw away from cities like Barcelona and you can understand the heritage and the history behind how cities have been developing across diverse cultures and you gain a sort of building block to how design works. I’ve been pretty lucky with having that context.

MCWALTER: Are you considering different types of disposable packaging besides cups? 

QURESHI:  Yes. We wanted to understand and build a methodology for one vertical first, so we could get to a point where we tested the whole system and understood the commercial and scalability requirements, consumer requirements, retail etc and be able to get very comfortable with one vertical before moving that methodology into others. So stay tuned. There’s more to come on expanding into new product categories. It’s going to be very exciting. And there’s a little bit of a rebrand that’s going to happen as an effect of that!