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Turning food waste into wearable clothes

How UTM ICUBE startup ALT TEX plans to commercialize biodegradable fabric
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Ghotra hopes that more fields will embrace the sustainable practice of turning waste into useful products. COURTESY OF AVNEET GHORTRA
Ghotra hopes that more fields will embrace the sustainable practice of turning waste into useful products. COURTESY OF AVNEET GHORTRA

ALT TEX is a Toronto-based startup cofounded by U of T alum Avneet Ghotra and her associate, Myra Arshad, through the ICUBE accelerator offered at UTM. The company aims to commercialize a polyester-like material made from reengineered food waste to improve sustainability in the fashion industry. 

ALT TEX’s work has received media attention, and attracted eco-conscious investors to raise $1.5 million in funds toward upscaling its innovation over the past year. The Varsity talked to Ghotra about her journey so far as a young woman entrepreneur in STEM. 

Creative spin to the idea of circular economy 

What inspired Ghotra to found ALT TEX was the concept of ‘circular economy,’ which was introduced to her during an environmental science course. The idea of a circular economy involves utilizing waste produced in one industry as the input for another industry. 

Building on the advocacy work that she has done through Approaching Zero, a not-for-profit organization, Ghotra realized the dire need for a sustainable alternative to polyester, which is made from fossil fuels. Although recycled polyester is available in the market, there is a point after one or two rounds of reuse when polyester cannot be further recycled and ends up in a landfill. Ghotra was looking for a material “that could be considered a waste from another industry, but would have the properties to tackle what polyester does.”

Waste-to-wardrobe technology 

Since ALT TEX’s technology cannot be disclosed in full due to pending patents, Ghotra provided a general overview of how the company operates and the process of converting the food waste into textiles. 

Three different teams of experts are necessary in the research and development process: a bioprocessing team, a polymer science team, and a material science team. The researchers collaborate to synthesize biodegradable polymers using sugar and other components extracted from food waste. From that point on, the extracted material is modified to optimize its intended purpose of becoming a green alternative to polyester. 

A t-shirt created from ALT TEX fabric is estimated to “divert one kilogram of food waste from landfills, and can divert up to nine kilograms of carbon emissions from the atmosphere,” said Ghotra. 

Social responsibility as a woman in STEM 

Ghotra is well aware of the challenges that young women face in the field of STEM entrepreneurship, which is traditionally dominated by men. She is very grateful for the presence of advisors who supported her project from the beginning. “[My mentors] believed in what [we] wanted to do and helped ALT TEX come past those hurdles,” she said.

As a company, ALT TEX is very engaged in the research and developmental process of creating biodegradable fabric. The ALT TEX team is careful in their prototyping to ensure that their alternative to polyester becomes a lasting solution and, eventually, a global industry standard. 

Ghotra said that although the process of building a company does have a “learning curve,” she highlighted the importance of seeking mentorship and supportive figures for the journey. Ghotra cited her own experience with the incubators and accelerators that “mentored [ALT TEX] through the process of how to take the idea and create next steps from it.” 

Calling for change

ALT TEX is looking to commercialize its product by the end of 2022 and to upscale production in its pilot facility. In the short term, ALT TEX is keen to test the market by partnering with brands to develop capsule collections. Ghotra envisioned the company moving from “mid-tier sustainable brands to having ALT TEX as something that’s offered by large global brands.”

Besides collaborating with sustainable fashion brands, Ghotra is hopeful for a future where biopolymer is no longer marketed as a niche product. She emphasized how important it is for average consumers to consider biodegradable fabric such as ALT TEX an industry standard that can replace polyester for good. Eventually, she hopes that other companies will follow ALT TEX’s example, and that the idea of the circular economy will spread further in domains other than fashion.