Start-Up Ambercycle Pioneers Sustainable Polyester Recycling

US start-up Ambercycle emerged from their shared concern about the impact of polyester recycling during their senior year at UC Davis.

Check the labels on your clothes, and you’ll likely discover a common thread: polyester. From workout shirts and stretchy jeans to pantsuits and underwear, this synthetic fiber, derived from fossil fuels, dominates our wardrobes. However, a significant drawback is its challenging recyclability, with 65% of clothing ending up in landfills within a year of purchase. In response to this environmental crisis, Los Angeles-based start-up Ambercycle is spearheading a revolutionary approach to polyester recycling in their Boyle Heights laboratory.

Co-founded by Shay Sethi and Moby Ahmed, Ambercycle emerged from their shared concern about the environmental impact of polyester during their senior year at UC Davis. Combining Sethi’s biochemistry expertise with Ahmed’s background in Genetics and Genomics, they set out to tackle the problem by developing sustainable waste-reducing technologies. Their mission is to transform polyester recycling from discarded clothing into a reusable material.

Unlike traditional recycling methods that compromise quality through extreme heat, Ambercycle’s chemical processes delicately extract polyester from used garments. The result? White polyester pellets serve as a raw material for garment producers. These pellets can be transformed into yarn and, subsequently, into brand-new clothing items. The breakthrough technology showcases the potential to overhaul the fashion industry’s dependence on oil.

Challenges and Ambitions for Polyester Recycling

Despite their groundbreaking work, Ambercycle is yet to turn a profit, relying on patient investors to scale up their operations. Sethi acknowledges the challenge of transitioning from producing a single T-shirt to addressing the colossal demand for sustainable alternatives in the entire fashion industry. The urgency to replace the industry’s reliance on oil propels Ambercycle’s quest for scalable solutions.

A recent tour of Ambercycle’s lab for design students from Otis College, Cal Tech, and Pasadena’s ArtCenter College of Design highlighted the laborious process of polyester extraction. The hands-on experience prompted reflections on the diverse materials present in a single garment, fostering a deeper understanding of the environmental impact of fast fashion.

The Human Touch: Sethi’s engagement with students, such as providing scissors and guidance on disassembling garments, brings a human touch to the otherwise technical process. Cal Tech graduate Jennah Coborn, who received a grant to study sustainable fashion, expressed the conflict between environmental awareness and the pressure to conform to fashion trends amplified by social media.

Creative Solutions

The students’ creativity extends beyond Ambercycle’s technology. Otis College student Alisa Bogaryan, for instance, experiments with fashion items made from plastic waste, navigating the challenges posed by materials like plastic. Their teacher, Kristine Upesleja, applauds their resourcefulness in creating clothing and jewelry from various waste materials, emphasizing the need for more recycled polyester options.

Despite the challenges, students like Coborn leave Ambercycle’s lab with renewed hope, acknowledging the technical solutions and dedicated individuals working towards undoing the environmental damage caused by the fashion industry. As Ambercycle strives for profitability and scalability, its work stands as a beacon of innovation in the ongoing quest for a sustainable and circular fashion economy.

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