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!