2.03 Circular design for natural fibers

Daniela Bosia
Aprile 2023
Marzo 2025
Politecnico di Torino

Università degli Studi di Firenze, Politecnico di Bari, Università degli Studi di Palermo, Hanapa S.R.L., Frezza Legnami S.p.A., Innostart S.R.L., Università degli Studi di Parma, Università degli Studi di Catania

2.03 Circular design for natural fibers

The project contributes to the shift towards Circular Economy for made-in-Italy industrial productions using or producing as “wastes” natural fibers, in two ways: by experimenting with new solutions for textiles starting from the use of more sustainable natural fibers and by defining scenarios for the reuse of fibrous wastes from textile and agro-industrial chains aiming at new low environmental impact materials and products.

The Textile & Clothing (T&C) sector makes an important contribution to the European economy, with an annual turnover of EUR 178 billion (Euratex, 2019b). However, the T&C sector is one of the world’s most polluting industries, thus being identified by EU Green New Deal as a strategic sector to address the public funds and shift towards Circular Economy (CE).

Currently, world fibre production accounts for 51% polyester and 24% cotton, and only 7% is related to other natural fibers. An important way for the T & C sector to limit its negative impacts and support a regenerative and circular system is by diversifying our portfolio of materials. Hence, it is necessary to tackle this problem by reducing our dependence on virgin materials produced through intensive agriculture, by reusing waste, through circular strategies, and reinvesting in ‘forgotten fibers’ (i.e. hemp, wool, flax, wild and spontaneous vegetation..). For this reason, a systemic and localised approach is needed to create a more resilient system, also considering the effectiveness of circularity according to a holistic sustainability viewpoint.

Furthermore, the aim of this project is to use by-products, natural fibrous material, and fibrous waste from various local production chains (e.g. textiles, agro-industrial waste, breeding) and from companies involved in the disposal end-life products (i.e. textiles), for the production of new materials with a low environmental impact, bio-inspired composite materials, components, semi-finished products, products, and services for the T&C sector, the furniture industry, and the construction sector. In addition, the project applies a systemic approach closely linked to local conditions and opportunities and knowledge to create more resilient circular production processes, chains and systems of materials, products and services favouring the use of recovered or “forgotten” natural fibers, even those currently not enhanced and require a scaling up, also in collaboration with local communities.

The fibers could include, among the others,hemp, wool, flax, nettle, papyrus; the agro-industrial waste could include wood, grapes, beer, fruit, coffee, rice, olives, hazelnuts, almonds, tomatoes, etc.

The identification of these and other fibrous materials to focus on will occur in the first exploratory phase of the research in which specific supply chains, contexts, and actors in different local areas will be identified, starting from the local specificities.

In summary, this project addresses the agribusiness sector (food and non-food), the textile and clothing sector, the furniture industry, and the construction industry, with the aim of:

  • facilitate the use of by-products and massive reuse or recycling of waste from local agribusiness supply chains by analyzing the possibilities of incorporating waste materials into fibrous nature components with low environmental impact and competitive in different industries and in the presence of different market behaviors;
  • activate functionalisation processes of the natural fibers in order to increase performance with the aim of increasing the value;
  • exploitation of waste biomass for the synthesis of new binders (adhesives) in the production of composites from fibers of natural origin;
  • development of fibers’ surface modification strategies aiming at their efficient integration within sustainable matrices;
  • boosting social enterprises active in the processing, reuse and recycling of natural fibers and involving the local communities;
  • set up a digital/physical experimental laboratory for the development of a methodological workflow aimed at process efficiency, with emphasis on the concepts of economic-environmental-social sustainability and scalability.

Circular Design for Natural Fibers focuses on the exploration and enhancement of the use of natural fibrous by-products, natural fibrous materials, and natural fibrous wastes from local production chains (e.g. textiles, agro-industrial, breeding, forestry, etc), from companies involved in the disposal of textiles, as well as from and rediscovered local production of ‘forgotten’ fibers; it aims to the production of new materials, bio-inspired composite materials, components, semi-finished products, products, and services for the textile and clothing, furniture, and construction sectors. To do this, the aim is to implement a set of POC of TRL 3 based on 3 main areas of research: 1. Definition of local natural fiber supply and processing systems – Portfolio of scenarios for the recovery and valorization of natural fibers, waste fibrous materials, and “forgotten” fibers from the agribusiness and textile sectors (identification of natural fibers produced and discarded in different territories; definition of local supply systems) (Polito, PARTNERS); – recommendations and services for implementation and facilitation of end-of-life natural fibers and natural textiles disposal processes for reuse and recycling (Polito, PARTNERS) – hypothesis (POC) of PSS industrial symbiosis and systems between agro-industry, textiles, clothing, furniture and construction (Polito, PARTNERS) 2. New materials, products and production processes for the textile & clothing sector, for the furniture industry, and the construction – Portfolio solutions for natural textile and fibers waste reuse and recycling (Polito, PARTNERS); – Products and semi-finished products from recovered fibrous materials and “forgotten natural fibers” (e.g., willow, hemp, papyrus, wool,rye, marsh reed, etc) (Polito, PARTNERS); – Processes for transforming waste into new materials with low environmental impact (Polito and PARTNERS); – Surface functionalisation processes of the natural fibers in order to increase performance with the aim of increasing the value (Università di Firenze and PARTNERS); Samples production and evaluation of their performances (Polito, Università di Firenze, and PARTNERS); 3. Evaluation, valorization, scaling and dissemination of results – scenarios of possible uses of new developed materials in the different aforementioned sectors; – Assessing the effectiveness of circularity through LCC and LCA, also considering potential social/economic/environmental/market aspects of projects and results (Politecnico di Torino and PARTNERS) – local enhancement implementation scenarios of results at different geographical scales (Politecnico di Torino and PARTNERS). – Communication strategies and actions for dissemination of results (Politecnico di Torino and PARTNERS) The outcomes expected from the three areas of research/project aim to identify discarded fibrous materials from production chains that are not directly involved in the production of virgin fibrous material and to exploit them, according to their physicochemical properties, in the textile, furniture, and construction sectors. Since these by-products would be produced anyway, what is intended to be encouraged is their exploitation in order to partly replace the use of virgin fibrous raw materials and partly replace the use of synthetic materials in the various production sectors mentioned above. This could bring an economic and environmental advantage to the companies supplying the by-products and would reduce the environmental impact as it would avoid, in part, the intensive production of virgin raw material. The design of new materials, semi-finished products and products aims to identify and provide a range of concrete and sustainable solutions for reusing fibrous waste. On the one hand, it is intended to devise, develop and test the material and technical feasibility of the same, and on the other hand, it aims to identify the technologies and production processes needed to make them. This will include the development of new functionalisation processes to increase the fibers’ value by integrating them within composite materials, also by making use of new adhesives obtained from the valorisation of biomass. What is also intended to be tested is the economic sustainability by companies of such new production processes. With regard to “forgotten” fibrous crops that are specific to certain territories, we believe that their reactivation can foster the reemergence of non-intensive local productions that are more closely linked to the specificities of the territories, which could have a positive impact on local economies. Fostering local production systems also aims to enhance territorial cultures and recover traditional knowledge, producing social resilience and environmental impacts in terms of better care of marginal places and territories.