Textiles are ubiquitous in our daily lives, from the clothes we wear to the seat covers in our cars, and from the outdoor furniture we lounge on to the rugs decorating our homes. Most textiles, however, lead very short lives. Once stained, ripped, worn out, or out-of-style, they are deemed end-of-life, and are typically landfilled or incinerated, never to find use again.
This linear lifecycle for textiles doesn’t quite feel natural. In nature, materials flow cyclically. Water is a good example. Lakes become clouds become snow become streams become lakes, again and again. Nutrients also flow cyclically on forest floors. In these systems, molecules move in circles, providing different functions and utilities at different stages in the cycle, and always return to the start. At Ambercycle, we believe that textile materials can flow like this. We regenerate and restore end-of-life textiles at the level of the molecule, and allow these materials to flow again.
When we started we were focused exclusively on the technology aspect of building Ambercycle, which you can read about here, and didn’t have much of an idea on how we would start getting the near-death textiles in the first place. “Where do we collect more discarded clothes to regenerate?” we thought. We found the answer by going outside.
Down the street from our Los Angeles HQ, we found Prudential Overall Supply, a trusted partner with whom we’ve been collecting textiles for regeneration for the past two years. Prudential is a leading uniform provider and one of our earliest suppliers of end-of-life textiles. Below is a conversation with our friend John Clark, CEO at Prudential, where we discuss how our partnership enables the industrial laundry sector to shift to circularity.
What are the challenges the industrial laundry sector faces in disposing end-of-life garments?
Waste has been a historical problem for the Industrial Laundry industry, a problem with no current market solutions. Today, the most economical and labor efficient method of disposing of end-of-life garments is to send them to a landfill. This is unfortunate, as hundreds of thousands of pounds of potentially reusable material reaches its end-of-life every year.
At the core of the industrial laundries’ business model is to reuse acceptable customer-facing uniforms. Such reuse of textiles attempts to get the most out of garments and textiles our industry rents to the millions of customers we serve. Once a uniform is deemed no longer acceptable as customer-facing (too many stains, excessive wear or fading) the most widely used method of disposal is paying for a waste management company to pick up the garments and send them to a landfill.
Another option is donating the clothes. The problem our industry faces is that many of the uniforms are personally identified with the previous employee’s name and company, so donating them is in conflict with our customer agreements that the uniforms will not reach the public domain.
How does the partnership work operationally?
At the start, a predetermined weekly frequency of pickups was established by Ambercycle, and Prudential employees were trained to identify and separate specific uniforms that have high polyester content. These textiles are set aside for a weekly pickup, allowing Prudential to reduce our waste management costs and Ambercycle to increase its volume of materials to process. Essentially, with no disruption to our current process both companies have established a reciprocal relationship that benefits the global goal of reducing waste sent to landfills.
What do you see as the future of this partnership, and by extension, the future of textiles management?
The most significant benefit Ambercycle provides to our industry is in the realization of a long-term vision of ending the waste stream of textiles by repurposing the materials that otherwise would go into our landfills. Such repurposing will create a much-needed cycle of recycling waste. From a cost management standpoint, we enjoy the cost reduction associated with reducing our waste management costs. Lastly, we benefit from marketing a recyclable uniform, which is becoming a more common distinguishing feature in the retail industry.
We envision Ambercycle growing in such a way that they can absorb a higher volume of our end-of-life material – in fact, we hope the day comes when Ambercycle can absorb all our end-of-life garments. We also hope for a future where the repurposed material regenerated from our end-of-life materials are sold to our textile manufactures so that we can acquire uniforms that include post-consumer recycled material. This would create an endless cycle of reuse for the base materials used in the industrial laundry industry.