Interview with Orange Fiber: circular economy and industrial symbiosis for more sustainable fashion
The circular economy is a framework of system solutions that addresses global challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss, waste and pollution.
The transition to a circular economy involves decoupling economic activity from the consumption of limited resources. This represents systemic change that creates long-term resilience, generates business and economic opportunities, and offers environmental and social benefits.
The circular economic model is a valid and effective tool to mitigate the environmental impacts of the fashion industry.
One of the main tools supporting the circular economy is the industrial symbiosis.
The industrial symbiosis involves the creation of a network involving companies operating in similar or different sectors, in which companies constantly exchange by-products, energy, water, materials, knowledge and information, with the aim of reducing the environmental impact of business activities while improving profits.
The by-products, in fact, according to a linear economy perspective represent a cost for the company as they must be disposed of. On the contrary, in a network of industrial symbiosis by-products are transferred to other companies that can use them as new inputs.
Thus there is a double economic advantage: not only is the cost of disposing of the by-product avoided, but also revenue is obtained from the disposal of the waste to the user company.
Despite the economic and environmental advantages that the industrial symbiosis can guarantee, there are several barriers that hinder its development in the fashion industry and beyond.
What are, in detail, the benefits of industrial symbiosis for companies operating in the fashion industry and what are the barriers that limit its development?
We talked about it together with Enrica Arena, CEO and CO-FOUNDER of Orange Fiber, an Italian company that produces fabrics from citrus by-products.
Cikis: The Orange Fiber project is based on one of the main tools of the circular economy, namely the industrial symbiosis. Through the symbiosis the by-products of a company become new resources for one or more different realities. In your case, these wastes correspond to the by-products of the citrus industry. How did you come up with the idea to base Orange Fiber’s entire business model on the circular economy? And why did you decide to focus on citrus scraps?
E: Orange Fiber was born from the desire to reuse citrus fruits and to find a new life to the by-product of the citrus industry.
After talking to the companies that produce juices we discovered that several companies in the area had ended up in legal disputes due to the lack of disposal of by-products.
For these reasons we have undertaken a research & development activity with the aim of evaluating the possible use of orange as a raw material in the production processes of textile fibers, with the idea of producing materials that can be repaired or reused at the end of life or that are not harmful to the environment.
Production and properties of the Orange Fiber fabric
Cikis: Orange Fiber produces fabrics from citrus industry by-products through an innovative process patented in 2014. Can you tell us how your production process is structured from cellulose extraction to weaving operations?
E: Our plant is located inside a company that deals with pressing, from which we receive the mash, that is the waste of citrus, or as it is (wet) or dried in a greenhouse.
This dough passes through our patented process which consists of 2 main stages:
- Separation of cellulose from other different contents of the pulp (oils, water, etc.);
- Optimization and purification of cellulose to be subsequently transformed into textile fiber.
The fibre transfer takes place in Austria thanks to the partnership with the Lenzing Group, through a spinning process for ionic liquids.
So the fiber that comes from this transformation is a lyocell fiber that contains orange cellulose from our process and wood cellulose from certified forests.
Once the fiber is created in Austria, we bring it back to Italy where it is transformed into yarn.
Cikis: What are the properties and characteristics of your fabric?
E: Our fiber fits from a product point of view in the category of artificial fibers that start from natural raw materials and through synthesis processes become fibers.
Usually all artificial fibres have cellulose as their starting material, in particular wood cellulose.
In the case of lyocell and ion liquid spinning the most interesting aspect is that most of the solvent is recycled during the process, minimizing the environmental impacts from this point of view.
Our lyocell is a discontinuous fiber; so it looks like a cotton bow and during spinning it can be used alone or in a mix.
The same is true for discontinuous viscose and cannot be applied in the case of acetate or in the case of plain viscose which can only be mixed by means of twisting mechanisms.
The environmental benefits of working with Lenzing
Cikis: The viscose production process can be high impact depending on the chemicals used and their management. Can you tell us what are the most risky phases and how the risks can be managed? What environmental benefits did the collaboration with Lenzing bring to Orange Fiber?
E: In my opinion, the greatest risk in these processes in general is related to the regulations and therefore to the context of the solvent management regulations of the country in which the processing takes place.
Therefore, the main risk is the presence of different regulatory contexts that could lead to significant environmental impacts resulting from the bad management of solvents.
In order to avoid such problems, we rely on our partner Lenzing. We chose this reality after evaluating the transparency of its production processes and the company’s concrete commitment to environmental sustainability issues.
Cikis: As your scale and therefore investment possibilities increase, can innovations also be introduced in the cellulose extraction process?
E: Absolutely. Right now we are being examined by two different bodies that deal with Life Cycle Assessment.
One more generally on the supply chain (from cellulose to fabric) and one on the extraction of cellulose, because at this stage it is essential for us to understand how we position ourselves compared to traditional processes and go to test all possible optimizations before investing further in production capacity.
Industrial symbiosis: advantages and limitations
Cikis: Let's now move on to the topic of industrial symbiosis. In order to make industrial symbiosis possible, it is necessary to establish a lasting and solid collaboration with the actors involved, in this case companies operating in the citrus industry. To make this possible, all the parties adhering to the symbiosis network must obtain economic benefits. In this regard, what are the economic advantages for the companies that collaborate with your reality?
E: The main economic advantage is the non-disposal of the mash.
The economic advantage that we have managed to build together, thanks to the installation of our machinery at their plants, is the recognition of an economic amount for the processing of the mash especially in the preliminary parts, to lighten them of the cost of disposal but also to recognize them the value of the work carried out at their plant.
Furthermore, the company we work for has just made a huge investment in a water purification plant which will be operational by the end of the year, which will allow us to recover over 60% of the water from our process.
This will decrease our production costs while increasing their income from our collaboration.
Cikis: In general, but especially in the fashion sector, there are still few cases of industrial symbiosis in our country. What, in your opinion, are the problems that hinder its development? Are these regulatory or cultural and technological barriers?
E: Surely one of the biggest barriers is to put production facilities in common.
Our project involved the purchase and subsequent insertion of a new plant in an existing production site that had a space available for us. However, this type of collaboration is not frequently established between companies in the fashion sector: for example, the creation of districts has certainly been an attempt to establish industrial synergies between companies but, In this context, each company operates in the district employing its own plant, without putting it in common.
The prospects of industrial symbiosis and the circular economy in the fashion sector
Cikis: Do you have any advice to give to companies that are interested in deepening the theme of industrial symbiosis?
E: It depends on where we position ourselves within the supply chain, in the sense that there are different supply chains that have waste problems.
What needs to be evaluated is the propensity of companies to invest.
The start-up is often expected to find an immediate solution for a different by-product without investing in the research and development phase, which is instead fundamental.
We often receive requests from other companies who would like to try to reuse their vegetable waste, but to do so, significant human and financial resources are needed to understand the feasibility of the project. In our case the process lasted about 8 years of investments and research. Our efforts will allow us to help companies reduce R&D time but it is not easy to create a new fiber from vegetable waste and for this reason the expectations of open innovation should be changed.
I am thinking of the case of Renewcell in Sweden, which managed to re-adapt a cellulose extraction plant in the paper sector to the textile sector starting from cotton textile waste and created a supply chain around it: the company invested more than 10 years in research and development and involved the public and private sector, also including retail players who rarely invest so far back in the supply chain. Therefore, similar investments are only possible with strong support from the public and private sector.
Cikis: Do you think there will be adequate support for the circularity at European and Italian level?
E: What we read is that in the PNRR there are several resources dedicated precisely to the ecological transition and sustainable innovation.
So formally there will be resources available at European level.
As for our country, a greater decision is needed to support sustainable and circular solutions in the textile and fashion sector, with a greater risk taking of open innovation by the supply chain.
Within a network of industrial symbiosis, companies collaborate with each other by exchanging by-products and material and energy flows, with the aim of reducing the environmental impact of their processes and improving the company's economic performance.
The economic benefit for a company that sells waste corresponds to the avoided disposal cost which, on the contrary, translates into new revenue.
In the case of the fashion sector, there are not many examples of industrial symbiosis. To reverse the situation, a joint commitment between the companies that will make up the network is important, as well as a real interest of the supply chain in investing in human and financial resources to support research and development activities, in order to encourage the transition of the sector textile and fashion towards greater circularity and sustainability.
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