Words by Nika Talbot

Ambercycle is on a mission to end waste in fast fashion

In this Green Techpreneur edition, I spoke to the co-founders of textile recycling startup Ambercycle to explore the truly breakthrough innovation they’re delivering to tackle the mountains of plastic waste in fast fashion.
For fashion businesses that want to cut their impact on the planet, finding a more ethical and sustainable way to produce clothing has been both a huge challenge and a priority. Plastic recycling has been a misnomer – recycling methods degrade the material to the extent that it can only be reused once, making the idea of ‘recycled’ plastic meaningless.

But two remarkable college graduates, Ambercycle co-founders, have shattered established limitations to create a method of plastic textiles recycling that is repeatable, without degrading the quality of the material.

Founded by former college roommates – Shay Sethi & Moby Ahmed – the eight year old LA-based startup is tackling oil based fibres – polyester and nylon, which take hundreds of years to dissolve, and then become toxic to humans, animals and soil. Ambercycle makes circular fashion a reality, breathing new life into old clothes for brands and manufacturers, over and over again.

Like many green techpreneurs, their innovation journey started with deep curiosity about an everyday problem that led them to challenge accepted norms and search for solutions: “we asked people in the industry, ‘Why is clothing production this way?’ says Shay. “We found you get a lot of responses to the effect of, ‘Oh, that’s just how it is.’ What’s remarkable is that if you keep asking these questions, you find the answers don’t have any valid reason behind them.

“It seems non-linear if you look back, but it was pretty straightforward at the time. If you start with one simple question: ‘How do you make one t-shirt out of another t-shirt?’ Then we distilled the problem into specific milestones: creating a technology that’s never been scaled before may seem daunting, but taking it step-by-step is very important,” Shay says.

Fresh out of college, the courageous duo jumped headfirst into solving the polyester recycling problem. After three years of R&D – long nights experimenting on a 3-foot lab bench, trying every possible way to recycle textiles – they made their first t-shirt, now hanging up in a museum in the Netherlands. Over time, they developed their first textile solution: cycoraⓇ, a regenerated alternative to conventional polyester that can be recycled over and over again.

“It was eight of years of, every single day, working on the technological development, making mistakes and continuing to iterate. We’ve also built the team in that way, where the commitment to iteration and never stopping is very strong with us,” Moby says.

Today they have a business that has successfully diverted over 2.5 million pounds of end-of-life textile waste away from landfill in 2022 alone and raised $27 million in funding to build a circularity ecosystem in the fashion industry, with investors including H&M CO:LAB, and Zalando.

The next step crucial for Ambercycle is to implement these solutions at scale: as consumers become more environmentally conscious, there’s enormous demand for sustainable and affordable consumer goods that’s waiting to be filled, and Ambercycle has aligned partnerships with corporate fashion brands that are ready to make this a reality.

“The fundamental basics of clothing are about stories,” says Shay, “and so many designers are using sustainability to tell a new and compelling story because it’s one of these things that literally touches every single person – it’s clothing.”

Here’s what it took for Moby and Shay to redesign the fashion industry for circularity.

How does your cycoraⓇ solution work?

Moby: We developed a new technology and process for recycling, a molecular regeneration process, where we separate and purify the polyester from all the other components without degrading the quality of the material – so it’s truly recyclable. Ultimately, we’re left with the same qualities as the material that would come from petroleum, but there’s a greater than 40% reduction in CO2 compared to normal polyester, as it’s made from end-of-life material.

What made you decide to tackle plastic textile recycling?

Moby: As college roommates, we were always curious and we would look at and brainstorm and think about things. In California, we’re told that plastic water bottles are recycled and regenerated and turned into new goods. We found that’s not true for a lot of plastic materials. That was one thing. The second thing was, one day, we had a bunch of old clothes, and we were like, ‘What do we do with this?’ We learned that the same polymer in plastic packaging materials is also used in apparel. In clothing, the issue is much more acute, where less than 1% is fully closed-loop recycled at the end of its life and more than 70% of apparel is land-filled or fully incinerated. This doesn’t make any sense.

It’s completely illogical to extract or grow raw materials from the earth, do all these value-added processes and creating beautiful garments we love to wear and feel very connected to and then just toss them into the water or onto the land or burn them into toxic gas.

At the time it was 2015, and this was a 2 trillion dollar industry. We became very interested, and I would say obsessed with fixing this, making this linear clothing chain more circular and in harmony with nature.

Did you want to build a business while still in college?

Moby: We initially had no desire to start a business. We challenged ourselves – can we make one t-shirt from another t-shirt? There was no master plan to build a business.

Shay: Building a business is not a means in itself. The purpose of a business is to solve a problem.

How did you develop the solution?

Shay: We started investigating and talking to people in the industry, ‘Why is clothing production this way? Why do you have to mix fibres together? Why can’t we collect garments at their end of life?” We took it one step at a time and asked ‘what could be better about this system?’ We kept asking and learning.

If you use science to define your future path, you might be limited because you might not be able to imagine something that doesn’t seem possible today.
Shay: After we graduated, we started on a 3-foot lab bench in northern California in the basement of an old biotech company – we had no experience in industrial scientific lab research, so we took it one small step at a time to figure out how to make a garment we could wear.

Moby: We had some donated lab equipment, a lot of guidance, talking to people and mentorship, but there were a lot of long nights on our 3-foot lab bench where we were just trying every possible way to recycle textiles. Just making the first t-shirt out of an old t-shirt took three years. And it wasn’t very comfortable!

Many envision everything coming together in one moment, but building something is a step-by-step process.

Ambercycle’s first t-shirt hangs in a textile museum in the Netherlands

What was key to creating a breakthrough solution?

We started small

Shay: We started at a small scale, with 100g-200g, and then just solved the problems required to make that initial fibre sample. Then, we moved on to how do you make 10 kg of material? Then 20 kg?

We sought continuous feedback from industry ecosystem participants

We were very fortunate to have many industry ecosystem participants help inform our development process early on. Our initial launch with H&M was a simple product because it was one type of fibre and around 500 garment units. That milestone allowed us to take a bite-sized approach to solving an enormous problem.

Do you have a solution to the issue of microplastics leaking from fabrics?

Moby: It’s something we think about all the time. When it comes to microplastics, our idea is to continue working on ways to produce recycled materials that release less of that impact.

How did you make it through the first 3 years of R&D?

A clear vision for success

Shay: It was very important to start with a clear vision of the end goal and then work backwards from that vision into day-to-day problems we have to solve.

A lot of what we’ve learnt about success has come from having an extremely clear vision from day 1 that we are unrelenting on – it defines everything, but the means to achieve it can fluctuate wildly.

Staying lean and creative

Shay: We were focused on getting to that next milestone. Instead of using a 100-gallon reactor, you can use a giant cooking pot. You can do things that will enable you to spend much less money and to be focused on reducing expenses.

Moby: One formative experience was when a piece of equipment was being delivered to our facility. When it was offloaded from the truck, the pallet ripped, and this beautiful reactor we had designed and needed for our process fell and shattered everywhere. After that, we went to the restaurant supply store for everything we needed and pieced it together. Whatever we could get our hands on to create one t-shirt from another t-shirt, that’s what we did.

Ambercycle’s textile recycling factory

Did you ever feel like giving up?

Shay: No. We’ve always known that this would work one way or another. We knew we were right about the concept, but we might be off in timing. When we started in 2015, it may have been too early, but over the past 8 years, it’s become such an important topic in fashion, so now the timing is exactly right.

It was important to us, and it was just a matter of time until it was also important to others, as we knew it was a shared experience we were all having. What do we do with all these garments? It’s a huge question.

What’s ahead for Ambercycle?

Shay: The solution we’re developing reduces landfill waste and creates new materials to replace petroleum-based products. In 2022, we successfully diverted around 2.5 million pounds of textiles from landfills. Looking forward, we will build large-scale commercial facilities that can help decarbonise the apparel supply chain at scale.

Over the next 10-15 years, we will build the factories of the future and incentivise those plastic bags of garments that sit in our closets back into collection systems that go back into our supply chain.

Do you have any daily rituals that keep you grounded?

Shay: Roll out of bed, coffee, and then get going.

Moby: I like to meditate, do special stretches, and read 5-10 pages of a book in the morning prior to the first sip of coffee.

What has been your biggest lesson since launching Ambercycle?

Shay: Listen to your heart.

Moby: You’re as ready now as you ever will be.

……………………..If the Ambercycle co-founders could teleport themselves into the future and be anywhere, doing anything, Shay would be voyaging to the centre of the earth when the technology required to sustain the heat and pressure of earth’s core becomes sufficiently developed, while Moby would be rocking out in outer space in a space disco with resurrected clones of all his favourite scientists and engineers from history, after we’ve completely decarbonised society and achieved global harmony.

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