A Change of Clothes

Article by Adam Duckett

Tahani Kaldéus talks about her work towards a greener fashion industry

IN THIS series, we speak to chemical engineers working outside of the fossil fuel sectors, to highlight the breadth of opportunities open to those just starting their careers or seeking to change sectors.

Tahani Kaldéus is Head of R&D and Innovation at the textile recycling company Renewcell in Sweden. The company is on a mission to change the fashion industry for the better. It has commercialised a process that takes used clothing and breaks down the garments into a textile pulp than can be used to make new clothes.

In 2014, in a breakthrough moment for the company, a model walked down a catwalk wearing a yellow dress made from blue jeans that had been recycled using Renewcell’s process. With Renewcell investing in expanded processing capacity, including a new plant under construction in Sweden, Tahani and her team are helping to develop the recycling processes and products that will save hundreds of millions of garments from being buried or incinerated.

“I manage all work related to research and development,” Tahani says. “My work encompasses everything from managing the work of my development team, helping to run experiments, managing our patent portfolio, discussing our products with our customers, and collaborating with the production and process teams to continuously improve our products.”

Tahani graduated from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden with a Master’s in chemical engineering before earning a PhD in fibre and polymer technology. She started her career in the pharmaceutical industry working in several roles for AstraZeneca including as a packing engineer and business development project manager. A switch to the packaging industry followed, working as a new business development manager before returning to academia as a researcher.

When applying to work at Renewcell what aspects of your background in chemical engineering did you highlight to show you were the best candidate?

“For this role, it was important to have a broad knowledge of both engineering skills and specific material skills as well as having the right attitude and experience. I think it is important to show who you are and how you want to make an impact. It is important to explain your personal strengths and what drives you.”

What skills were helpful or transferable when it came to securing the role?

“Since our process is very similar to a traditional pulp and paper process, engineering and material skills that are desirable for that industry are of interest within this one too. However, it’s not always the actual skill that makes the difference but how you as an engineer use it and challenge the ways of using the skills and technology. If you have good engineering skills and an innovative mindset you can add value.”

What aspects of chemical engineering do you apply in your everyday role?

“Early on as an engineer, I was taught the importance to be analytical and not to be afraid to question the status quo. My skills within fibre technology, cellulose chemistry as well as process technology are frequently used.”

What advice would you give to a recent graduate or early careers chemical engineer who wants to work in your sector?

“I would say it is important to clearly identify what drives you and set goals accordingly. Maybe you need to expand your knowledge and enrol in a course, expand your network by attending seminars, or why not approach someone at the company you want to work for? It is the same advice for anyone who already has experience and wants to move sectors. It is an advantage if you have a good knowledge about materials and how to process polymeric materials, both synthetic and bio-based polymers.”

Double denim: Renewcell’s Circulose technology gives waste clothes a second chance

Do you expect there will be a growing demand in your sector for chemical engineers who can help make fashion more sustainable?

“The need and demand for recycling textiles is huge and will increase, so yes, I believe that there will be a growing demand.

“To meet the required demands on a more sustainable industry, both in terms of process technology and as well as raw material usage, the fashion industry faces a huge need for transformation. However, I believe it is also important to understand that although this transformation can be managed by engineers within this sector, we all need to have a different mindset. It’s not always necessary to invent new technologies or methods but to understand our current processes and look upon how they could be used in more innovative ways.”

What is the most rewarding part of your role?

“The very idea behind Renewcell is to challenge one of the biggest culprits of the climate challenges we are facing, namely the fashion industry. The idea behind Renewcell is to take cotton textile waste – that includes post-consumer and industrial waste – and create a high-quality textile pulp that we call Circulose. This is very similar to wood-based viscose. It is 100% recycled and bio-degradable. And new clothes can be made from it. All this is done without the use of virgin cotton or the need for deforestation.

“Renewcell and the processes we develop work towards several of the UN’s Sustainable Development goals. We work towards sustainable industrialisation, enabling a decrease in use of natural resources and a decrease in CO2 emissions. This in turn helps transform the fashion industry by reducing its material footprint by avoiding the use of fossil or virgin raw materials. Moreover, our process tackles the issues with plastic waste in oceans and the vast amount of non-degradable waste ending up in landfills.

“The Renewcell motto is ‘We make fashion circular’. Working with other talented colleagues and my team to achieve this motto is very rewarding, and I’m excited to be a part of this amazing journey that we are embarking on.”

What skills have you developed since leaving university that have helped you achieve your career aims?

“In general, I would say that being goal-oriented and very clearly identifying what my passion is has helped me to achieve my career aims. Also, being very humble to the challenges that I have been faced with and taking advice from other people.”

What do you know now that would have been useful at the start of your career?

“One decision will not set the path for the rest of your career. Be bold and do what drives and fascinates you. No one can take away your knowledge or skills. But it’s up to you how you choose to use them.”

To read more articles in this series visit https://www.thechemicalengineer.com/tags/career-paths/

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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