Addressing industrial emissions and harmful particulate matter, such as those produced by steel mills, continues to be a difficult challenge.
Consider that right now, the steel industry is among the three biggest producers of carbon dioxide. In 2018, every ton of steel produced emitted about 1.85 tons of carbon dioxide, according to the World Steel Association. That equates to about 8 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.
LanzaTech, a carbon recycling tech company, views addressing those industrial emissions as an opportunity. It uses CO2 as a feedstock to create products. And in its latest announced partnership with athletic apparel company Lululemon, it’s creating yarn and fabric using recycled carbon emissions.
Here’s how it works: LanzaTech captures pollution from industrial sources — for example, greenhouse gas produced by a steel mill in China, the source for the Lululemon fabric, which is similar to the proprietary fabric that it uses for its leggings. The company hasn’t yet announced which of its products will be made from the new textile.
In a process similar to beer brewing, Lanzatech converts the greenhouse gas into ethanol. Then it passes that ethanol onto project partner India Glycols Limited, a petrochemical manufacturer that turns the ethanol into monoethylene glycol, a chemical normally made from fossil fuels. Lastly, one other partner, Far Eastern New Century, a Taiwanese textile producer, converts the monoethylene glycol to polyester.
What makes the fabric Lululemon is making with LanzaTech different from the textile that it has historically used is that it doesn’t require more fossil carbon to be pulled from the ground.
"What you don't want is to always have to use fresh fossil carbon," said Jennifer Holmgren, CEO of LanzaTech. "We’ve got to keep fossil carbon in the ground."
LanzaTech previously brought its process of capturing and recycling carbon to airlines with a jet fuel application and home care companies, creating packaging and surfactants. Lululemon is the first company it’s working with on textile production.
"What we're saying is, ‘Look, we're gonna take all of this waste, whether it's a gas or a solid, we're going to convert it to ethanol," Holmgren said. "And ethanol is going to be an intermediate to make all of the products that we make today in the petrochemical sector."
One of Lululemon’s goals is to make 100 percent of its products with sustainable materials and end-of-use solutions, toward a circular ecosystem by 2030. As part of this goal, it is planning to leverage its partnership with LanzaTech, creating a polyester where 30 percent of the product uses recycled carbon emissions.
In addition to its partnership with LanzaTech, Lululemon has a couple of other approaches in place to meet its goal. For example, it is a founding member of the Mylo Consortium, a group of four fashion companies that invest in material innovation — specifically, material made from mycelium, the root system of mushrooms — and other solutions to reduce the industry’s environmental impact. Other consortium members are Adidas, Kering and Stella McCartney.
Right now with its LanzaTech partnership, Lululemon is focused on creating and testing a successful fabric in order to inform future scaling and product plans, according to Ted Dagnese, chief supply chain officer at Lululemon.
"We are thrilled with the fabric that we have seen through this partnership to date," Dagnese wrote in response to questions emailed for this story. "We believe that sustainable innovation will play a key role in the future of retail and apparel, especially in polyester which is a widely used material."