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Organic invention, synthetic sustainability

Oerlikon partners with the textile industry to make sustainable innovation the height of fashion in manmade fibers.

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By Randy B. Hecht

People commonly associate environmentalism with organic and natural products. But reality is always more complicated than conventional wisdom — which is why sustainable innovation so often relies on unconventional thinking.

Did you know, for example, that according to the World Resources Institute, it can take 2,700 liters of water to make one cotton shirt? The organization notes that this is equal to a two-and-a-half-year supply of drinking water for one person. Conversely, technological advances have made the production of synthetic fiber such as polyester more sustainable because its manufacture requires significantly less water.

That matters in a world that’s facing rising levels of drought and water scarcity even as clothing and other textiles are seen as increasingly disposable. Worldwide, the volume of fiber production is estimated to be 110–120 million metric tonnes a year. Synthetic fibers comprise 75 million metric tonnes of that total. Meanwhile, the advent of “fast fashion” means that perfectly usable clothing gets discarded simply because it’s no longer the latest style or the buyer has worn it a few times, and most of that clothing (along with household textiles) ends up in a landfill or an incinerator instead of being reused.

Setting new efficiency and environmental standards

As we face a climate crisis, the textile industry is facing its own challenges: how to do its part to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement by reducing energy consumption, reusing raw materials and recycling waste? Oerlikon has been working for more than a decade to provide the technological support necessary to meet those challenges.

In 2007, Oerlikon introduced its WINGS (Winding INtegrated Godet Solution) technology, which revolutionized production by reducing process complexity, optimizing the energy efficiency of components and increasing production efficiency above 99.8 per cent. The result: our textile partners slashed energy consumption by up to 40 per cent. This translates to a cumulative saving of 10 million metric tonnes of CO2, which is equivalent to the annual energy consumption of one million households. Furthermore, texturing innovations enabled yarn producers to achieve significant reductions in waste, and intelligent software solutions made it possible to realized further manufacturing efficiencies.

In addition to establishing new sustainability benchmarks and reducing textile manufacturers’ need for water and chemicals, the WINGS innovation reinvented the industry’s safety standards and delivered continuous improvements in ergonomic conditions for operators of the machinery. These bonus benefits reflect Oerlikon’s commitment to pursuing new standards of social as well as environmental performance.

Likewise, the impact of these manufacturing advances goes beyond apparel made from synthetic fibers used by billions of people worldwide. These process improvements increase the sustainability of the carpets in your home, the airbags that protect you when you drive, the seatbelts you rely on in automobiles and aboard aircraft, the fibers integrated into medical devices, and more.

A vision for continued advances in sustainability

Now, the challenge is to integrate synthetic fibers into the circular economy so that these resources are reused productively instead of being discarded as waste. Among Oerlikon’s new innovations are technologies that facilitate recycling — by, for example, converting shredded polyester into new products. In addition to investing in textile recycling, Oerlikon is looking ahead to future sustainable innovations for the industry. One advance of particular interest is the development of biopolymers that, along with related materials, are expected to become the next generation of game-changers within 5–10 years.

There is one organic element in all this: Oerlikon’s reliance on the innovative thinking and environmental mindset of its scientists and engineers. In manmade fibers, as in every area of business at Oerlikon, our focus is always on environmentalism, and we take great pride as one of the world’s “50 Sustainability & Climate Leaders”. To learn more, watch the video about Oerlikon’s climate action.

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