ECO-INNOVATIONat the heart of European policies
A small Italian company has shown how the circular economy and sustainable innovation can work in practice by creating a new textile from an industrial by-product that is abundant in southern Italy: orange peel.
The company, Orange Fiber, founded in 2014 and based in Catania, Sicily, has patented a technique to extract cellulose fibre from orange peel and other waste from the citrus fruit juice industry. The fibres are extracted using chemical reagents from what is known in Italy as “pastazzo”, or the leftovers of citrus fruit after pressing. The fibres are then spun into yarn that can be used to make a versatile, biodegradeable textile.
The result, in its most refined form, is “comparable to silk,” says Orange Fiber founding partner Enrica Arena. The Orange Fiber textile is also comparable to silk in price terms. The fabric has attracted the attention of top-end fashion brands and in April 2017, Italian fashion house Salvatore Ferragamo used the textile for a collection of printed shirts, dresses and scarves described as a “hymn to Mediterranean creativity.”
The collection was “well-received and performed really well in the shops,” Arena says. She adds that the collaboration with Ferragamo was done in a “semi-artisanal” way as a pilot project so Orange Fiber could test its processes and product. The company learned a great deal through the initiative. “We realised there was a lot of space for improvement,” Arena says. Orange Fiber has therefore entered a further research and development phase to refine its processes and raise funds for a new production effort in 2019.
From an environmental point of view, the main benefits of the Orange Fiber process are that it squeezes value from a by-product that would otherwise have only low value as feed for animals, or would simply be thrown away. Each year in Italy alone, 700,000 tonnes of citrus waste is generated by the fruit juice industry, meaning Orange Fiber has no shortage of raw material. In principle, the production of Orange Fiber fabric could be scaled up, meaning more use of this waste as a raw material.
Scaling-up is certainly possible, and would lead to economies of scale, but it is hard to know how far the Orange Fiber process could go in the direction of mass production, Arena says. The company has been granted international patents for its techniques, so there is potential for expansion to other parts of the world where high volumes of citrus waste are generated.
In the meantime, Orange Fiber is attracting growing attention from the world of fashion. There are “an incredible number of brands reaching out for samples,” Arena says, meaning there should be demand for future production. Orange Fiber has also been recognised in various ways for its innovation approach and its sustainability. In 2016, for example, Orange Fiber received a €150,000 research grant from the Global Change Award, which is a scheme to identify the most promising sustainable fashion ideas, overseen by the H&M Foundation, which is linked to Sweden’s H&M retail group. There have been more than 8000 applicants for Global Change Award and Orange Fiber is one of only 18 winners.