Camira + SEAQUAL Turn Ocean Plastic into Upholstery Fabric

The circular economy is a proposed alternative to our traditional ‘take, make, waste’ model of production and consumption – one that offers hope in the face of environmental catastrophes from climate change to ocean plastic. Designing out waste and pollution, keeping materials and products in use, and regenerating our natural environment are so important to contemporary design that we wanted to create a dedicated space for the projects bringing these ideas to life. Circular by Design, a new weekly column by longtime contributor Katie Treggiden, will start by exploring the potential of waste as a valuable new raw material.

05.12.20 | By
Camira + SEAQUAL Turn Ocean Plastic into Upholstery Fabric

Yorkshire-based British textiles manufacturer, Camira, has teamed up with the SEAQUAL Initiative – which turns waste plastic captured from the sea by fishermen into yarn – to make the industry’s first upholstery fabric to contain ocean plastic. We caught up with Camira’s group design manager Ciara Crossan to find out more.

Image courtesy of SEAQUAL

Tell me a little bit about your childhood, education, and background in terms of how you first became interested in creativity, design, and sustainability.

I grew up in Northern Ireland and have always had a passion for interiors, fabric, and yarn. Having studied for a Textile Design undergraduate degree at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design, I went on to gain an Master’s in Textiles from the Royal College of Art – both in London. I am now Group Design Manager at Camira, and sustainability is at the forefront of my work. I have instilled my passion for products that are well designed, functional, and fit for purpose into the whole team.

How would you describe the Oceanic Project for Camira?

We like to describe it as one small drop in the mission to clean both the earth and its oceans. Created entirely from recycled plastic, Oceanic brings new life to the debris floating in our seas and on our beaches, as well as post-consumer plastic bottles destined for landfill. Each meter of Oceanic fabric contains the equivalent of 26 plastic bottles.

Image courtesy of SEAQUAL

What inspired this project?

It actually stemmed from the BBC’s Blue Planet program and David Attenborough’s narration of some of the horror stories of plastic in our seas. We reached out to SEAQUAL through one of our recycled yarn partners so that we could incorporate recycled marine waste into a new sustainable range. SEAQUAL transforms waste and raw materials through a network of partners, local organizations, and authorities across the globe to create a collaborative community with a common goal – to reduce plastic pollution in our oceans and on our beaches, while raising awareness. Their licensing system enabled brands and manufacturers like us to certify the traceability of the fabric’s contents.

Image courtesy of SEAQUAL

What is the fabric made from, how did you select that particular material, and how do you source it?

The SEAQUAL yarn used within our fabric contains plastic which has been predominantly sourced by fishermen in the Mediterranean Sea and washed ashore on beaches in Spain. The polyester yarn is spun from Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) – one of the main plastics found in marine and beach waste. This is almost entirely made up of drinking water bottles – as much as 85-90% in some regions. As these bottles tend to be clear or light blue plastic, they are ideal for the textiles industry as they can be transformed into a dyeable yarn and fabric.

Image courtesy of SEAQUAL

When did you first become interested in using waste as raw material and what motivated this decision?

Camira has been using waste as a raw material ingredient for more than 20 years. It started in the late 1990s, when we made a recycled wool upholstery fabric from old army jumpers from the Ministry of Defense, pulled back to fiber, spun into yarn, and woven into new fabric. We’ve been making recycled polyesters from PET bottles for almost as long, and some of our fabrics use our own waste yarn and selvedges which are upcycled in a circular, closed-loop fashion. We’re always eager to keep pushing new innovations, so we wanted to take our fight against plastic pollution one step further this year with the launch of Oceanic. This is our very first fabric – and the first in our industry – to contain ocean plastic and a reflection of our ongoing commitment to environmental stewardship.

What processes does the waste material have to undergo to become the finished fabric?

In a nutshell, the plastic waste collected by fishermen is sorted into polymer types, washed, shredded, and extruded into a polymer chip. This is sent to our yarn supplier, who adds other post-consumer recycled PET chips, derived from waste plastic bottles which have been diverted from landfill. The chips are melted and then extruded into yarn. The yarn is texturized before being sent to Camira for weaving into the final fabric.

How did you feel the first time you saw the transformation from waste material to product/prototype?

It’s hard to imagine a crumpled plastic bottle salvaged from the sea being transformed into a beautiful fabric but when I saw the initial samples, I was absolutely delighted. When you imagine a recycled plastic yarn, it’s easy to think of a rigid fabric with a coarse texture, but Oceanic shows how beautiful the transformation from waste to weave can be. Its distinctive design features a diagonal pattern, which creates a bold two-tone color effect up close. From afar, the diagonal appears much softer as the colors blend into one. But as soft as it feels, it’s tough as the seas it was made in and it can be used to upholster both task and soft seating.

What happens to your fabrics at the end of their lives? Can they go back into the circular economy?

We’ve always strived to break the traditional “take-make-waste” model in favor of recycling, re-use, and cyclical loops where we upcycle waste inputs to create new fabric. The ease of recycling, once a fabric has been upholstered onto furniture, depends on how easy it is to remove the fabric. That’s where we see the benefits of our Technical Knitted fabrics which are knitted as component covers for both ease of assembly and removal. We guarantee our fabric for 10 years and then, if it can be easily removed and returned, it could, in theory, be shredded, melted, re-extruded into yarn.

How have people reacted to this project?

So far, we have had an extremely positive reaction to this new product range. I guess, as plastic marine pollution is such a hot topic right now, people feel personally connected to the story behind this collection – and we are finding that our customers want to be a part of our mission to reduce plastic marine waste. Whether that’s by opting to upholster a furniture range in Oceanic or by signing up to be a SEAQUAL Licensee themselves, which we actively encourage our customers to do.

Image courtesy of SEAQUAL

How do you feel opinions towards waste as a raw material are changing?

As we all become more mindful of our planet’s finite resources, I think we are beginning to question not only what happens to our waste, but how could we use it in a more resourceful and innovative way. This is certainly true of our own design team – and our innovation team, who are already looking beyond the next few years. We have noticed a definite step change in the way people perceive recycled products – just because something started off as waste, that shouldn’t taint the finished product – it can still exude quality and have a high-end finish.

What do you think the future holds for waste as a raw material?

“Designers are in a powerful position to create a better world… or to contribute to further destruction,” said Victor Papanek Design for the Real World. That’s something we take very seriously at Camira, and so for every new collection, the first question we ask ourselves as designers is: ‘how can we design sustainably?’ We will continue to innovate in naturally sustainable materials, not only expanding our wool-bast fiber fabric portfolio but introducing new recycled fabrics, new materials, and new concepts, such as cork and a British wool fleece available on a roll. We are also pushing the boundaries in our technical knitting capability to be able to use recycled polyester. Across the industry more broadly, I predict the use of waste as a raw material will soar. As we expand our own research around new fibers, this is certainly where our future is heading, so watch this space!

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Katie Treggiden is a purpose-driven journalist, author and, podcaster championing a circular approach to design – because Planet Earth needs better stories. She is also the founder and director of Making Design Circular, a program and membership community for designer-makers who want to join the circular economy. With 20 years' experience in the creative industries, she regularly contributes to publications such as The Guardian, Crafts Magazine and Monocle24 – as well as being Editor at Large for Design Milk. She is currently exploring the question ‘can craft save the world?’ through an emerging body of work that includes her fifth book, Wasted: When Trash Becomes Treasure (Ludion, 2020), and a podcast, Circular with Katie Treggiden.