People are increasingly aware that for a sustainable and resilient society nature should no longer be seen as an inexhaustible source of raw materials for our well-being and prosperity. We must act tactfully in accordance with the principles of the donut economy within the vulnerable area between the ecological ceiling of our planet and the social foundation for a just subsistence level (Raworth, 2017), and within the Critical Zone: the fragile biochemical layer between planet earth and the atmosphere which determines all life on earth (Latour, 2020). Instead of exploiting the earth, humans and non-humans should work together so as not to disrupt the delicate balance between ecology, technology and culture. In doing so, biomimicry can serve us as a model for a new science, as a measure of 3.8 billion years of evolutionary experiments, and as a mentor for new relationships with nature (Benyus, 1997).
“One of the problems with high-quality recycling of used textiles is separating different natural and artificial fibres from a textile blend.”
The textile industry is known as one of the most unsustainable and polluting sectors and also creates a lot of clothing waste, of which only a part is reused and/or recycled (UN 2020; Modint 2021, EU 2022). One of the problems with high-quality recycling of used textiles is separating different natural and artificial fibres from a textile blend. Large collection and recycling companies as well as fashion and textile designers are interested in sustainable separation methods and/or creating added value from currently unusable residual flows.
In this context we have been established a special collaboration between a designer-researcher (Carolijn Slottje), a large textile collection company (Sympany), an interdisciplinary group of Master's students from Wageningen University & Research (WUR), the Dutch trade association for fashion and textile Modint, fashion designers Hellen van Rees and Leenmans & Wicker, Naturalis Biodiversity Centre, The Dutch Pest & Wildlife Expertise Centre (KAD) and last but not least our natural friends the clothing moths Tinea bisselliella and Tinea pellionella.
People regard clothes moths as troublesome pests because their larvae eat holes in clothing. Existing research on these moths focuses on their extermination. However, Carolijn Slottje discovered that clothes moths are picky eaters and select specific artificial or natural fibres as their meal. She was curious whether this natural process could contribute to a better way of textile recycling. Slottje also found that after digesting the textile fibres, the moth larvae excrete a protein-rich substance and possibly other useful substances that can be used as new raw materials, like biopolymers.
The collaboration in this project is special because the partners have never worked together before and are usually operating within their own networks and value chains. The transition to a sustainable society, however, requires radical innovations with newly developed value chains in which stakeholders represent very diverse knowledge domains, do not or hardly speak each other's professional language, think from very different theoretical frameworks, and have divergent and sometimes even conflicting values and interests.
However, this special collaboration provides added value for all parties. Carolijn Slottje is now able to scientifically substantiate her first experiments with literature and laboratory research. The KAD researcher experiences for the first time that research on moths does not only aim at extermination, but can also contribute to a positive use of these 'pests'. WUR students can use their theoretical knowledge for an urgent social question. Representatives of the fashion and textile industry, like Modint, Sympany and designers, participate with great interest in the project in search of radical innovations to make the sector more sustainable.
It is a pleasure to experience how the partners enthuse and stimulate each other in the collaboration, despite the fact that there is still a huge gap between the moth research and the concrete application possibilities for the fashion designers involved. It remains difficult to keep all partners in the process properly involved, especially since the emphasis is still on laboratory research, the results of which are not all yet known. In this, expectation management is of great importance for all participants.
“A first surprising interim result is that the moths are excellent indicators of the different types of fibres that are in a garment.”
A first surprising interim result is that the moths are excellent indicators of the different types of fibres that are in a garment. This concludes that, most clothing labels only tell us half the truth. Apparently, we are not the only ones who expect the moth research to have an impact: two PhD researchers from the Royal College of Art London and York University are conducting a similar study. However, an initial exchange of ideas could only take place after signing an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) that must guarantee the confidentiality of information. This is usually an indication that there is a large expected impact. In any case, the consortium hopes that the research will show that cloth moths can separate relevant fibres in non-rewearable clothing. Also, we are curious whether the ‘frass’ (moth shit) provides a new, fertile raw material. Hopefully, we are able to scale up these biological principles in follow-up research to contribute to the sustainable goals of the textile sector.