This initiative includes several pathways that help fashion industries embrace decomposition

The D4T initiative is conducting pilots that are designed to explore how the “bottom fraction” of mixed textile waste which are destined for landfill or incineration—or in the case of Accra, Ghana are already polluting the general environment—can be converted into valuable outputs. In every way, this initiative continues to respect the textile waste hierarchy, namely that reuse and recycling is valued before the garments are broken down into their constituent molecules.
Solutions for the Global North
Solutions for the Global South
Green Chemistry Research

Global North

The objective of the Rotterdam, Netherlands pilot is to divert unwanted textiles from being incinerated, buried in a landfill, or being shipped and polluting the Global South. Recycling mixed waste into commercially valuable outputs is one of the biggest technological challenges facing industry. So our process began by partnering with the Metabolic Institute and documenting over 200 decomposition technologies that could theoretically break down this mixed waste fraction. As our goal was to test a pathway that could be implemented today, we had to put aside many promising technologies which are still in the lab stage. But we see this field evolving quickly as both climate and end-of-life Extended Producer Responsibility legislation becomes a reality in Northern Europe, which will make incineration less feasible.

Circle Economy, our implementation partner in Rotterdam, worked with a major regional textile collector and sorter, Erdotex, to take on the waste that represents a cost-center for their business and is otherwise unsellable. The team – together with the innovators described below – completed the first “proof of concept,” designing both thermochemical and biological recycling pathways for converting mixed textile wastes into commercially valuable outputs like glucose, bacterial cellulose, and PHA, that can become part of a circular bioeconomy. These materials will then go to biomimicry innovators like Sparxell to make color without pigments and spider-silk companies that create high performance fibers without harsh chemistries. Think of the conversion of waste as an intermediate step while industry learns to make 100% bio-based fibers designed for controlled biodegradation and recovery of monomers or conversion into platform chemicals [17] Several innovators claim to be able to use enzymatic hydrolysis to convert cotton and synthetic textile fibers at scale: Samsara Eco (PET, nylon 6,6), Carbios (PET), and Protein Evolution (Polyurethane, nylon, PET). . Next generation biomimetic materials will be biorecycled without the use of processes that require high temperatures or pressure and certainly without the use of toxic chemicals.

The proof of concept

Circle Economy selected implementing technology partners (see below) for a proof-of concept test before running a full pilot at more substantial volumes. This was a low-risk, affordable way to test the solutions against our complicated mixed waste stream. The next phase of work will be the full pilot, hopefully to begin later this fall, and will likely include some changes to the approach. Here is a synopsis of our early findings, with more detail in this report:

1. Cost savings for the system
Composite/mixed post-consumer textiles (PCT) is currently a cost-center for collectors/sorters of textile waste, but it could become a subsidy or even profit center in the creation of new materials.
2. Question around sorting
Enzymatic hydrolysis works on composite materials, in a mixed material slurry, even without sorting, though conversion yields were very low.
3. Biocompatible outputs
PHA grew from this PCT glucose that still contained residual chemistries,
such as dyes.
4. Pivoting to the bioeconomy
Gasification has a place in this pathway to produce gas (H2, CO, CO2) that is usable for biotech with most hydrocarbons converted.


Mixed textile waste was put through enzymatic hydrolysis, which uses enzymes to break molecular bonds with the help of water. BiofashionTech used enzymatic hydrolysis to convert the cellulosic content (cotton and viscose) into glucose, thereby separating it from the synthetic fractions. The resulting glucose went to EV Biotech to create PHA, a biodegradable polymer that can be used for a variety of applications. The team also began conversations with spider-silk innovators where the glucose can be used to feed microorganisms needed to produce bio-synthetic protein fibers, and with Sparxell, which uses bacterial cellulose as the basis for its structural colorants (instead of pigments or dyes).[18] Note: it is hard for next-generation innovators to compete with the current system: the oil and gas sector is subsidized to the tune of $7 trillion dollars each year (IMF, 2022). Government subsidies make the downstream products (polyester and nylon yarn, for instance, or fertilizer used in conventionally grown cotton) much cheaper than competing innovative products made from safer materials. As market forces like full-cost accounting and volume purchasing happen, these dynamics will shift.

Alongside these applications, the pilot also was able to use the synthetic fractions by drying the residual slurry. In partnership with TNO, the Dutch applied scientific research institute, the dried fraction was gasified and generated gasses such as hydrogen (H), carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2), and methane (CH4), which can be used as building blocks for other biological processes to create new and safe materials and products. One such subsequent process was outlined by our German partners, Beneficial Design Institute and Regenerate Fashion, who proposed running CO2 through microalgae to yield beta glucans: soluble fibers that come from the cell walls of bacteria, fungi, yeasts, and plants. Beta glucans have both agricultural (fertilizer) and health (food additive, pharmaceutical) uses. Other ingredients derived from microalgae are oils, fertilizers, animal feed, medicines, cosmetics and biofuels.

Pilot Implementation Partners:

What we’d like to see tested next…

1. Cascading or sequential biorecycling
Recycling mixed waste into commercially valuable outputs is one of the biggest technological challenges facing industry. Biorecycling may offer several opportunities for processing mixed textile waste. One opportunity may be to use enzymatic hydrolysis to sort mixed textiles into their respective fibers through a sequential or cascading process where target fibers are culled out selectively by enzymes to isolate them first and then hydrolyze them into various feedstocks or intermediate chemicals like glucose from cellulosics or monomers from synthetics. This is an intermediate step while industry learns to make 100% bio-based fibers designed for rapid biodegradation and recovery of monomers or conversion into platform chemicals.

2. Growing the bioeconomy and biomimetic supply chains
As the U.S. and other countries take on the inevitable challenges of growing their bioeconomies, they will need to look for all opportunities to utilize “legacy” materials as feedstocks to help build the infrastructure for converting biogenic sources of carbon into biomimetic material supply chains. One such opportunity might be to utilize the biorefinery concept to blend mixed textiles with biomass to create multiple types of products (chemicals, fuels and power). Different combinations of synthetic and organic feedstocks will determine both the amounts and types of outputs produced.

Global South

The focus of our work in the Global South is to explore how decomposition can help remediate ion of pollution. High volumes of unusable arrives daily in the Global South including Accra, Ghana.

Led by the OR Foundation, we are working with the community around Kantamanto Market in Accra, to create new economic opportunities around decomposition. The focus is on remediating Korle Lagoon, the site of decades of textile (and other waste) dumping. There the team is leveraging and emulating nature, by using bacteria from the lagoon to break down textile waste in the contaminated water while creating compost—a beneficial, monetizable new feedstock—at the same time.

This work pilots a new, community-supported decomposition pathway for textile waste based on enzymes that eat plastic and other synthetic materials. Two key units decompose the textile waste, and cleaned additional impurities from water. The first unit is a bioreactor in which the enzymes are placed in a controlled environment (sealed and filled with water from the lagoon) along with bags of textile waste from the lagoon and the market.

The pilot is led by Ghana-based The Or Foundation, which has placed decomposition of textiles as the final method along a holistic cycle. Our program supports a pilot project based in Accra, Ghana, one of the largest recipients of globally exported secondhand clothing in the world, focused on the role of decomposition as a tool for bioremediation. The Kore Lagoon in Accra, Ghana has been the site of textile and other plastic waste dumping within a landscape of Waste Colonialism. [19]Waste colonialism is when a group of people uses waste and pollution to dominate another group of people in their homeland. The term was first recorded in 1989 at the United Nations Environmental Programme Basel Convention when African nations expressed concern about the dumping of hazardous waste by high GDP countries into low GDP countries. Waste Colonialism is typically used to describe the domination of land for the use of disposal, also referred to as a “sink” and this is quite visible in the context of Accra’s Kantamanto Market, the largest secondhand market in the world.” #STOP WASTE COLONIALISM Learn more about the context for this waste in the Or Foundation's Waste Landscape Report.

Community-based Affordable Solutions in Accra, Ghana

Eight bioreactors [20]Biomimetic bioreactors used to treat polluted waste water: Ruminants (i.e. cattle, sheep, antelopes, deer) have a unique digestive system that allows them to better use energy from fibrous plant material than other herbivores. John Todd Ecological Design, Biomatrix Water, and EcoSTP are a few of the entities that have looked at nature’s principles to inform the design of their various processes. Critically, all of them rely on the diversity of life to succeed rather than on isolating and “improving” individual microbes or enzymes. have been built in consultation with international consulting scientists. These bioreactors have been designed to be affordable and accessibly replicated with locally sourced components. The pilot design is grounded within the local context of Accra’s waste management and community needs, especially considering the physical footprint and electrical needs of the bioreactors so as to allow placement within realistic, community-led operating scenarios. The Or Foundation is testing the hypothesis that the microbial community can break down the textile waste, including textiles made of plastics.

Once the bioreactors have done the work of breaking down otherwise unrecyclable textile and plastic waste into a compost-like by-product, the wastewater of the system, still heavily polluted from its original source along side a waste dump in the Korle Lagoon, is then run through what The Or Foundation calls the ecosystem modules. These are engineered wetlands providing the landscape for bioremediation to purify the water to safely return to nature over time. Inspired by the biomimetic systems of living machines [21]See John Todd Ecological Design , the system consists of five ecosystem modules, each with variants targeting remediation for specific pollutants.

Both the bioreactors and ecosystem modules are currently operational as interconnected systems in pilot state at The Or Foundation’s facility directly behind Kantamanto Market in Accra, from which The Or Foundation’s Accra-based team and international consulting scientists have been able to collect and begin analysis of initial findings to continue design iterations.

Termites are hugely important decomposers that work with other organisms to turn wood and other plant matter into soil. Bioreactors (below) can replicate in a controlled environment many of the processes and reactions that occur efficiently and effectively in nature (e.g., in termite guts).

Looking north along the Odaw River from the defunct dam that bridges the water where the river meets the Korle Lagoon, thick layers of waste create floating surfaces on which plants take root and people can be seen walking.
The Or Foundation Material R&D team is seen here harvesting water from the Korle Lagoon to inoculate the bioreactor. The health of all the team members is of upmost importance when handling this toxic waste. The Or Foundation ensures this by providing and requiring full PPE, access to a safety shower, regular health checkups, and relevant vaccinations.
The OR Foundation Decomposition Pad, pictured here  under construction provides critical infrastructure, otherwise unavailable, to run the pilot experiments. Through the process of designing and building such a space, we have developed new insight into the structures necessary for community adaptation.
The Or Foundation’s bioreactor is made entirely from locally available components, including grasses, duckweed and other hydrophilic plant species that form part of the ecological module. The system is circulated by aeration and gravity and run entirely with solar electricity.
This bioreactor, inspired by Dr. John Todd’s work on living machines, mimics the structure and conditions of termite guts and applies general lessons adopted from the examination of a wide variety of animal guts.

Need Caption

In addition to the pilot work, The Or Foundation has conducted a comprehensive study of microfiber pollution in and around Accra and the Kantamanto Market. This groundbreaking research includes thousands of samples collected by citizen scientists and is core to the community engagement strategy carried out by The Or Foundation and partners in Accra as part of empowering the communities most deeply impacted by global fashion’s waste crisis with the data and tools to both clean up the mess and to advocate for policy changes on the local and global level.

This work is being done in partnership with the Marine Biogeochemistry lab of the University of Ghana, Legon to conduct a comparative analysis of lagoons in other areas of Ghana as control sites, specifically from Amisa Lagoon, Densu Estuary, Sakumo Lagoon, and Volta Estuary. Physicochemical properties of water were assessed to evaluate the overall water quality. Other microscopy techniques were employed to analyze water and sediment samples for microfiber pollution and the presence of other contaminants.

“The study identifies seasonal variations in microfiber distribution, underlining the complex interplay between human activities and environmental dynamics within these estuarine ecosystems. This gap in understanding, particularly regarding microfiber characterization in water, hinders our grasp of potential risks. To bridge these research gaps, advocating and conducting comprehensive ecotoxicological evaluations is crucial. These tests would unveil the ecological and health risks posed by identified microfibers, aiding the formulation of interventions and policies. Such initiatives aim to mitigate the adverse effects of microfibers, not only in Ghana but also in similar regions worldwide, safeguarding both ecosystems and human health from the detrimental impacts of microplastic contamination.” [22]Assessment of Microfiber Load in the Volat and Densu Estuaries in Ghana Using UV-Fluorescence and Brightfield Techniques by Abaye Kingsley Kojo Darko

This work by both the Or Foundation and University of Ghana is ongoing.

Green chemistry and biomimetic design

Natural resource cycles have three common characteristics: release (such as the transpiration of water vapor by plants); uptake (such as animals transforming ingested nitrogen in the form of plant proteins into muscle and blood cells); and storage (such as carbon storage in vegetation). Human industrial material resource flows do the same, but with critical differences, namely, our systems are not set up to allow for cycling resources effectively. Take fashion for example, which extracts resources from fossil and natural sources, turns those inputs into materials and clothing, but rarely cycles its resources back into the system from which it is extracted.

When speaking about sustainability, we often default to biodegradability or recyclability as a criteria for circularity, overlooking toxicity. Yet the longer hazardous materials and chemicals persist in the environment, the more likely they are to cause adverse effects. How we measure and design products to effectively manage both of these attributes is the basis for the research of D4T’s third project around green chemistry and biomimetic design.

This research examines biodegradability and toxicity at the chemical and material level. Collaborators were Yale’s Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering and Leeds University’s School of Design, along with beach and microfiber characterization by both the Or Foundation and University of Ghana, and a set of recommendations from textile industry advisors to the Biomimicry Institute.

Our research began by looking at how material transformation works in nature. Decomposition is about more than how materials break down: it is about the processes that transform molecules into valuable nutrients, feedstocks, resources, and other substances that sustain life. The Biomimicry Institute’s team did a deep-dive into how biological structures and processes facilitate release, uptake, and storage of nutrients, with a goal of providing direction to industry when making next-generation materials.

Estimating the biodegradability of chemicals

D4T collaborated with Associate Research Scientists Hanno Erythropel and Pedrag Petrovic in consultation with Profs. Julie Zimmerman and Paul Anastas with the Yale School for the Environment, Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering (“Yale”). Over the last decades, the increased availability of experimental biodegradation data has led to the development of in silico methods to better predict biodegradation pathways and outcomes. Given the importance of these approaches to supplement experimental work on the topic, our partners at Yale conducted a literature review, to be published in 2025. This first phase of research focused on the challenges of estimating biodegradability using common standardized testing methods.

This insight led the Yale team to think about a new way to tackle the problem, which would be using AI to augment the data gaps in the scientific literature around chemical biodegradability. This prompted a second phase of research focused on creating a searchable tool using an expanded set of data to more accurately predict the biodegradability of new and existing chemicals. While the tool is in the very early stages, it should augment existing tools in the space.

Yale’s predictive model is a tool created for chemists and molecular designers that leverages existing data to better predict biodegradation.

Material Level

It’s possible that the same material may biodegrade completely in one environment, and not at all in another.
— Pull Quote Here

As chemicals are not the same as materials given their interaction, we also partnered with Professor Richard Blackburn of Leeds University to do a literature review of textile material degradation. Biodegradability is often discussed as an either/or condition (it is not), and the appropriate end-of-life solution for natural materials (in some cases). A stronger understanding of biodegradability, and the current state of textiles enables all parties in this industry to advocate for changes in current textile production and reutilization that benefit human health and the environment. Key take-aways from this literature review (and synopsis) conducted by PhD candidate Olivia Skilbeck and Libby Sommer, to be published later in 2024, are:

  • Biodegradability claims should always specify the environmental compartment where biodegradation would occur and the timeframe. For materials that in theory have the potential to biodegrade, their practical biodegradability out in the world is largely dependent on environmental conditions. It’s possible that the same material may biodegrade completely in one environment, and not at all in another.
  • All textiles have the potential to release microfibers. Microfibers have been found in every place scientists have looked for them including freshwater, marine water, air and soil.

There are changes in the textile supply chain all players can make to create products that embrace the above principles [23]Biodegradation is necessary but not sufficient for circularity and the biomimetic materials economy. Changes in overproduction, overconsumption, and underutilization come first. Products, once made, should be kept in circulation as long as possible—use and reuse. Products should be able to be disassembled. When materials and components of products are no longer able to be used, they should be able to be broken down through biological mechanisms (aka biorecycling). Finally, as there is leakage in any system including textiles, materials should be designed for biodegradability and low toxicity. . The redesign of textile materials and products for a biomimetic circular economy is the opportunity / responsibility of all who have a role in creating fashion, apparel and footwear.

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

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