You could say textiles are in Myra Arshad’s blood — several members of her family worked in the industry in Pakistan and her mother founded a cut-and-sew business after arriving in Canada. But Arshad was troubled by all the issues the fashion industry was plagued with, ranging from labour standards to the vast amounts of waste fast fashion creates. One of the core issues she wanted to tackle as an entrepreneur was the “very linear materials we’ve been using for centuries.”So she teamed up with a close friend, Avneet Ghotra, who Arshad describes as a “passionate environmentalist” with a background in biochemistry and environmental science to find a circular solution for the textile industry. They pinned down what that solution was three years ago: an alternative to polyester using food waste. Arshad and Ghotra co-founded ALT TEX to scale up and commercialize their concept.
Today, the Kitchener, Ont., company has grown to nine employees, hoping to expand to 15 by the end of the year, and has raised U.S.$3.5 million through venture capital, grants and prizes. Earlier this week, the company was awarded the Global Change Award from the H&M Foundation, receiving €200,000 and a year of commercial acceleration with the fashion giant.
Here, Arshad shares her motivation to create a biodegradable fabric, how food waste became the hero input material and the challenges she faced along the way.
What got you interested in finding an alternative to polyester?
We’re taking some of the most valuable resources we have on the planet, such as petroleum in the case of polyester, and we’re using it on things like fast fashion. Synthetic fabrics like polyester are in 60 percent of all the clothes we wear. We also saw that bioplastics were becoming a very large space. We hadn’t seen anyone use bioplastics successfully in fashion, even though polyester is basically just a plastic. My co-founder and I wondered: Why are bioplastics not being tapped into for polyester? And then we went from there and figured out how to innovate on existing bioplastic technology to create a polyester alternative.
What would it mean to replace the polyester with something biodegradable?
Our technology is plug-and-play with polyester’s existing supply chain. If we can nail the biotech scale-up and we can plug this into polyester’s existing supply chain — which we have the connections to do so through myself, my family and our investors — we can effectively replace a very large chunk of polyester. If we can replace even 30 percent of polyester at full commercial scale, that would equate to about 1.25 gigatons of emissions that we’re able to divert by 2050.
How did you figure out how to use food waste as a source material?
We actually didn’t start with food waste. Our theory was that we can replace a limited resource like petroleum with an abundant one. After evaluating a variety of under-utilized resources, such as byproducts from farms or from flower cultivation, even paper waste, we realized food waste has the building blocks we needed to generate our specific polymer. The challenge was getting fermentation efficiency comparable to commercial methods that are resource-intensive, which we’ve proudly been able to solve for.
What were the requirements for the new material to be comparable to polyester?
We very quickly learned that brands were not going to sacrifice on durability, nor did we want to. If we didn’t create a performance-oriented fabric, it wouldn’t stay in your closet for many years — you’re defeating the purpose of circularity.
We talked to fashion brands to understand their classification of strength when it came to natural fabrics, semi-synthetics and synthetics, and then reverse-engineered to work toward those goals. We built our innovation around that, arriving at a very strong polymer. When it came to secondary things like the flexibility of the material, we also just reverse-engineered our technology to work toward brands’ goals. We’re not at 100 percent of those goals yet, but we’re very close to where polyester is today.
What were the most challenging problems to solve?
Maintaining biodegradability and durability at the same time is very difficult — you’re trying to create something that is very durable and can last the consumer a long time, but you also want it to have an end-of-life that is circular. Introducing biodegradability does compromise strength so we found a good balance of it now where the material is still industrially biodegradable and it’s very strong, and that’s part of our IP.
Is the material on the market?
It’s still very much at lab scale, and we’re working with some contract manufacturing organizations to scale up. We’ll be moving into the pilot phase in the next little while, which will take us from producing a couple of metres of fabric per batch to several thousands of metres every month.
What are you aiming for next?
Canada hasn’t been a big player in textiles for a very long time. We’re not just trying to create a local niche Canadian brand, we’re trying to put it on a global stage. We’ve had a lot of brands that are interested in us because of the fact the product is made here. While there’s a long-term vision for it to be manufactured across the world, this has shown us the merit in doing this type of work in Canada.
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Photos courtesy of ALT TEX