Design for

It’s time to help the helpers.
This initiative converts unwanted materials into biomaterials recognizable to nature. The Biomimicry Institute set out to apply nature’s principles to a very unnatural set of circumstances—turning mixed textile waste that was destined for landfill or incineration into something valuable and usable by Earth’s “helpers”.

There are millions of species of bacteria, archaea, and algae, the most ancient and widespread engines of material flows and life support for the planet. When they don’t recognize what we humans make, it becomes pollution. Instead, we can learn from them and support them and in turn, they will continue to support us.

There are millions of species of bacteria, archaea, and algae, the most ancient and widespread engines of material flows and life support for the planet. When they don’t recognize what we humans make, it becomes pollution. Instead, we can learn from them and support them and in turn, they will continue to support us.

soil supplements
(Beta glucan )
Bacterial cellulose
Biopolymers (PHA)

This collective action initiative began as a two year experiment: evaluate the landscape of decomposition technologies available today, in regions in the Global North and South, and work with teams on the ground to pilot the transformation process from mixed, composite textile waste into biocompatible new materials. With support from the Laudes Foundation and several others including VF Foundation, Decathlon, DOEN, and private donors we applied the principles of decomposition and food web theory to legacy textile waste.

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Every year, Earth synthesizes hundreds of billions of tons of cellulose [1]Pauly M, Keegstra K. Cell-wall carbohydrates and their modification as a resource for biofuels. Plant J. 2008;54:559–68 [2]Estimate of 500 billion, Stanley Manahan, University of Missouri the main component in plants—and it isn’t a problem. Yet we humans make a fraction of that, about 116 million tons of fiber each year for the textile industry, [3]Textile Exchange, December 1, 2023 and it is a problem. But if our materials metabolism [4]The synthesis of molecules and ingredients into materials and components, then back again into molecules through molecular reprocessing. John Warner at Bioneers 2023 —the way we make, use, and return materials—could match nature’s, it wouldn’t have to be.

In 2020 the Biomimicry Institute released our Nature of Fashion report that answered the question, “If the textile industry 'ecosystem' were to operate like nature, what would have to change?” Our short answer was that industry has been missing the engine that runs the natural world: decomposition. We said that the near future of circularity is to embrace the idea that all things shed—and what sheds, spreads. In nature, that's a beneficial thing: the lush Amazon rainforest would not exist if it weren't for the phosphorus transported as dust some 3,000 miles from the Sahara Desert, remnants of its past as a giant lakebed.[5]NASA Satellite Reveals How Much Saharan Dust Feeds Amazon’s Plants But we made toxic materials, so that is also what is cycling. System flows are foundational in nature-inspired design: nature relies on entropic flows to move nutrients, like a metabolism. Our human-designed materials need to work with these same forces.

The only way for materials like microfibers and all that they contain to be a force for good is to consider their toxicity and biodegradability together, and to design them to safely cycle within the one biosphere. We called these entropic systems “leaky loops” and our conclusion, like so many thought leaders before us, is that whatever we design will one day hit the air, water or soil (and all living bodies). Because we know that all loops (even in nature) inevitably leak, creating tighter technical loops will not work. That means fossil fuels, with their enormous climate footprint, and “forever chemicals” will be phased out, not just recycled. Which leads to a new question: could phasing out the hazardous mountains of unwanted garments be a subsidy of sorts for the safe, biomimetic materials that are coming to market? [6]See Ray of Hope Fellows

Every year, 182 million tons of diatomaceous dust leaves the Saharan Desert and makes its way across the Atlantic. Some 27 million tons, rich in phosphorus, lands in the Amazon basin, replacing vital nutrients that were washed away by heavy rains.

What the fate of textiles looks like today

Approximately 85% of all textiles in the US end up in landfills making up 5% of landfill space. In the EU 87% are incinerated or landfilled. [7]European Parliament, The impact of textile production and waste on the environment Landfills are the third largest source of methane emissions in the U.S.


Today's circular economy is implicated in exploitative labor practices and significant environmental damage, primarily in the Global South. For example, Kantamanto Market in Accra relies on head porters, kayayei, who are girls carrying bales that weigh about 55 kg (100 lbs) each. According to The Or Foundation, it’s led to many of these girls developing back and neck injuries and deformities.[8]The Or Foundation shows us who carries the burden of fast fashion’s failings In Chile, nearly two-thirds of the second-hand textiles received in ports end up dumped in the Atacama Desert, where they are often burned or left in piles.

Depending on the waste composition, incineration of waste emits between 250–600 fossil CO2kg per tonne of incinerated waste, which is comparable to the carbon intensity of emissions from coal combustion—making it a significant source of GHG emissions.[9]Waste to Energy: Considerations for Informed Decision-making

This initiative addresses a series of questions:

The foundation of a biomimetic materials economy is the trifecta of biodegradability, low toxicity, and biogenic or sequestered carbon. These safe and circular materials rely on structure to create performance functions like water repellency or color. Learn more about how nature designs at

Ultimately, a healthy materials metabolism means that waste is converted into building blocks for future material production, toxic chemicals are not used as inputs or outputs, and potential energy is unlocked.

Significant GHG savings are expected from increasing our reliance on biogenic (i.e., living) sources of carbon. An evolved materials economy will still need platform chemicals, even with more intelligent design based on biological structures. Those chemicals can now come from biomass feedstocks that are abundant, renewable, sequester carbon and can be economically cycled back into the bioeconomy. Historically, industry has relied on petrochemicals. The refineries of the future will be biorefineries making chemicals from biomass.

Note: we have to be careful with biomass—this isn’t about exploiting sources like forests or mono-cropping—but it can include any organic waste (think poop). You can break it down into something usable either with heat or bacteria/enzymes, which is precisely what our pilots are demonstrating. The question is, can we “spike” biomass sources with less savory textile waste (like that raincoat), and still get a biocompatible result? That’s what we are testing now.

In Northern Europe, the pilot tackles waste from a major regional collector/sorter: using a biological pathway to produce glucose and a thermochemical pathway to process the plastic fraction that would otherwise be destined for burning or burying.

In Accra, Ghana, the pilot focuses on remediating the harm done to Korle Lagoon: seeing if applied biomimicry can break down years of accumulated textiles (and other things) that ended up in the wrong place.

Mountain of discarded clothes in Atacama desert, northern Chile is visible from space (satellite photo). Image Courtesy: SkyFi

If we can break down the material that currently cannot be resold or recycled—into feedstock that biomimetic innovators Next-generation, biomimetic innovators are learning from nature to design color without pigments, water-repellency without harmful fluorine-based chemistries, and high performance fibers that use 1000x less energy than petrochemical-based fibers with water as the only manufacturing byproduct. need, then there is less waste, period. In Northern Europe, we are experimenting with extracting glucose from cellulose, even when it is bundled up in a polyester blend and treated with dyes and finishes. This is hard to do. But if it is successful then the innovators won’t have to rely on sugars from food crops, reducing demands on the land while solving a waste problem. This might give a leg-up to biomimetic innovators, encouraging them to expand their business in high-waste regions which could be a green jobs win for municipalities.

Generating a new source of feedstock from waste can help reduce our reliance on feedstocks from agriculture (e.g. corn) that faces its own set of sustainability challenges: conversion of natural habitats into cropland, competition with food production, over-consumption of water, and pesticide pollution, among others.

To successfully grow a biomimetic materials economy, materials need to be familiar to nature and capable of cycling, ideally, through biological processes. The D4T initiative supported research to examine biodegradability within the context of chemicals, materials and ecosystems.

Our ability to test for biodegradability is tempered by the complexity of natural systems that ultimately determine the environmental fate of materials that are released into the environment. Standardized testing methods for biodegradation are not a realistic proxy for measuring the fate of materials in dynamic natural systems. We need more sophisticated testing methods and computational tools to better predict the biodegradability of chemicals and materials. To that end, D4T collaborated with the Yale Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering to build a model that incorporates experimental and estimated data along with the molecular properties of chemicals to better predict their potential biodegradability. Estimating the biodegradability of complex materials which can be combinations of multiple chemicals or substrates is even more difficult. D4T collaborated with Leeds University in the U.K. to conduct a literature review of existing research examining the biodegradability of textile fabrics including their colorants and finishing chemistries, and their toxicity as they decompose. The D4T team created a summary of this research and its key findings to share with industry ahead of a peer-reviewed publication in a series of three info-sheets:

The five-button miner’s work pants recovered from the S.S. Central America. These “biodegradable” cotton pants were recovered intact from an 1857 shipwreck, demonstrating that real-world degradation is highly dependent upon specific environmental conditions. Image Courtesy: Holabird Western Americana Collections

What do you know…

The transformation of waste is about turning unwanted materials into valuable nutrients, feedstocks and resources that contribute to a socially just, regenerative system. 

A system problem as big as this one requires collaboration, partnership, and commitment from all stakeholders. Join us!

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Next generation material innovators that want to learn more, explore potential ways to collaborate, and/or are interested in finding a sustainable source of feedstocks.

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Brands that want to advance sustainability goals and commitments, and/or are interested in sponsoring us or in collaborating with us

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"Waste equals food" funders who are committed to building a circular and regenerative world, are passionate about addressing the most urgent climate challenges of today, and/or interested in addressing textile-related problems.

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Innovators who have a unique technology solution to break down textiles. 

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New decomposition solutions.

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The Laudes Foundation has provided catalytic funding for this ambitious project.

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