DyeRecycle: Chemical Solutions for a Circular Economy

In a circular economy, the value of every resource is maximised at each stage of its life cycle. For the fashion industry, the sheer volume of resources used to produce every garment makes this a daunting task. Beyond the fabrics and yarns, large volumes of dye – often derived from synthetic chemicals to achieve consistency and vibrancy – are manufactured and when products are recycled, they are often stripped of dyes which end up becoming waste.

But what if we could keep those chemicals in the supply chain?

A piece of navy-coloured fabric and a piece of white fabric in glass dishes
Recycled nylon before and after being treated with recycled dyes. Image: DyeRecycle

DyeRecycle extracts the dyes from pre-loved fashion products and turn them into new colourants. From a dedicated lab space at Imperial College London – from which the company is a spin-out – its founders are using green chemistry to enable a circular economy for chemicals used in fashion manufacturing.

Founder and CEO Aida Rafat says that although her background is in chemical engineering, having worked in research and development (R&D) across sectors including oil and gas, the scale of the challenge and potential to make an impact in the textile industry made it a natural choice to apply her skills.

“A few years ago, I had no idea how polluting the textile industry is. It’s overwhelming,” says Aida. “All our team have diverse backgrounds outside of textiles, but we can all relate to the problem because everyone wears clothes, and we all work in developing circular-based processes.”

The startup was officially incorporated in April, though Aida and the team have been working on their vision for over a year. In that time, they have balanced their own R&D activities with gaining commercial traction through relationships with brands and other partners. They have also grappled with the complexities of the fashion supply chain and its impact on their own manufacturing.

Achieving consistency through their own control of the manufacturing process has been one of the company’s priorities, as well as identifying how its dyes perform when applied to different types of fibres. So far, the process has been able to provide consistent products that meet the industry specifications.

Because waste garments and fabrics are the feedstock, the performance of DyeRecycle’s new products can vary depending on the specifications, quality, and nature of the supply. The team is currently working with pre-consumer waste to obtain a more quality-assured stream.  

There is also a gap in the infrastructure to support all businesses seeking to work with waste: a lack of effective sorting technologies.

A pair of cream-coloured trainers with green shoelaces
Polyester shoelaces coloured with recycled dye. Image: DyeRecycle

“The big challenge with all end-of-life processes like ours is that they rely on effective sorting technologies.  Applying innovative recycling solutions could be much easier when sorting technologies become more mature,” explains Aida. “It’s a big investment, and it’s probably too much for one startup, but collaboration would make it possible and it will pick up momentum as it affects more companies.”

At the moment the team is focusing on meeting the demand for dyes that work with conventional synthetic fibres, as well as some of the new bio-based synthetics they are being sent by brands. These fibres are often being developed in collaboration with other startups – a sign of the burgeoning ecosystem in which large and small businesses are working together to solve sustainability challenges.

“We’re definitely seeing more openness and willingness to collaborate among brands, and many are working with multiple startups at once to access their innovation,” Aida adds. “That’s especially true through the Fashion For Good (FFG) accelerator, where we’re scoping the opportunities to work collaboratively with multiple partners.”

Being selected for the FFG Accelerator programme has given the DyeRecycle team access to a wealth of sector-specific support, including coaching and connections to the wider global fashion supply chain. Demonstrating how and where the company fits into that supply chain and the broader system will be key to upscaling DyeRecycle to a commercial level.

The samples Aida’s team have made using recycled dyes are already promising in their consistency on different types of fibres, even on larger garments like t-shirts. Next will be a scale-up trial supported by a Future Fashion Factory Innovation Funding Call, partnering with a Yorkshire mill to use their fabrics as well as a brand that will use the new dyes. Confirming the commercial viability of DyeRecycle’s approach will support the startup’s next phase of growth.

“Dye recycling is a  new area for this kind of R&D, but we are seeing that people in the industry actually want to work on solving this problem with us,” adds Aida. “Now we’re engaging with brands things are really speeding up.”