127. Monique Maissan: Recycling plastic waste into textiles

Woman smiling and wearing blue top

Monique Maissan, CEO of Waste2Wear talks to Sue Stockdale about her entrepreneurial journey to manufacture textiles from recycled plastic bottles. Monique saw an opportunity to make a positive impact in the textile industry, one of the most polluting industries in the world, and pivoted her business to focus on this. She explains the process that is used, the importance of using recycled materials in the fashion industry, and the role of traceability and transparency in the recycling industry.

About Monique Maissan

Dutch entrepreneur, Monique Maissan specialises in sustainable solutions for the textile industry.  As CEO of Waste2Wear she is a pioneer in creating products from recycled plastics. This includes fabrics and finished products from recycled plastic bottles (RPET) and bags from recycled polypropylene (RPP) from discarded domestic appliances and single use food containers. Through Monique’s leadership, Waste2Wear has won several industry awards for their unique products; blockchain transparency and RPET testing method (RA-3) that identifies recycled plastic bottle content in fabrics.

Find out more via website | LinkedIn | Instagram

Time Stamps

[02:17] Textile industry pollution concerns.
[09:51] The impact of marketing on recycling.
[14:07] Transparency in recycling industry.
[15:54] Ensuring authenticity in supply chains.
[22:59] Sustainability and changing demands.
[25:16] The importance of innovation.
[32:18] A sustainable legacy.
[35:24] Viewing waste as valuable resource.

Key Quotes

  • “I do hope that I actually could close the business because there’s no more plastic to recycle. That is my goal.”
  • “The textile industry is a very polluting industry”
  • “We calculate with every step what is the reduction in water, in energy and in carbon footprint compared to the virgin equivalent”. 
  • “To date we have recycled about 100 million plastic bottles”.
  • “Post consumer recycled polypropylene is only being recycled 1% in the world”.
  • “The millennials, when they are sitting with a Gen Z it’s going to be a comparison of how sustainable are you, not if you are sustainable”.
  • “The key to any business is you need to keep innovating”.
  • “I am inspired by young people who actively want to make a difference.”
  • “It’s not always good to keep on doing things. It’s also good to stop things”.

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31. Anne Pleun van Eijsden: Leading a revolution in the paper industry

Monique Maissan Transcription

Sue: Welcome to another episode of the Access to Inspiration podcast where we bring you stories and insights from remarkable individuals who are making a difference in the world. I’m Sue Stockdale and today we are exploring a fascinating industry that’s addressing one of our planet’s most pressing issues. Plastic pollution. We’ll be delving into the world of recycled textiles. Our guest for this episode 127 is Dutch entrepreneur, Monique Maissan who specialises in sustainable solutions for the textile industry. As CEO of Waste2Wear she is a pioneer in creating products from recycled plastics. Back in 2007, Monique shifted her business focus to discover how to make textiles out of recycled plastics. Since then the company has achieved amazing success. And earn many accolades, recognizing their contribution to sustainability and traceability now this episode, isn’t just about recycling plastics. It’s about inspiring a movement towards a more sustainable and circular economy and understanding how we can all play a part in reducing plastic waste, conserving natural resources and creating a healthier planet for future generations. So, whether you’re passionate about sustainability, intrigued by innovative solutions or just simply looking for some inspiration you’re in the right place. Join us as we dive into the world of recycled textiles and learn from Monique’s incredible journey. Welcome to the podcast, Monique. It’s lovely to speak to you today.

Monique: Well, thank you, Sue, and it’s an honour to be here.

Sue: Thank you, Monique. I’m really interested in what we can talk about today in terms of your business in recycling plastic waste into textiles and to hear your journey and why you do what you do.

Monique: I actually started my business in 1998. So I’m a textile engineer. But in 2007, I just changed focus completely into recycled textiles. So trying to make textiles out of recycled plastics.

Textile industry pollution concerns

Sue: And what prompted that change then?

Monique: Well, I was always fascinated by textiles and I love textiles, but I always had a very big problem with the textile industry as it is a very polluting industry, it’s actually the second most polluting industry in the world and the humanitarian conditions were also often not something to write home about. So I was feeling kind of not comfortable and not happy to be in an industry which is not such a good one. So when in 2007 I stumbled across the invention of making polyester from recycled plastic bottles, I was thinking, oh my God, that is something if I could really elevate that because at the moment that that was first invented, it was only very thick and dark, and not very usable fibres. They were more suitable for beddings, for toys and things like that. But I thought if I could really lift it up and make it into a higher level, then the textile industry could be finally doing something good for the planet.

Sue: While you thought that this was a way of being able to do something good for the planet, how did you believe that you could make it happen? So those skills that one needs to be an entrepreneur?

Monique: Well, I’m a doer, so when I see a challenge, I just think, what can I do about this? And then I was living in China, and in China there’s the biggest production of polyester going on, and I was already in that space, using all kinds of polyesters and polyester mixes for high-level ladies’ fashion. And I thought, well, why not use these connections that I have to see if I can start developing with my connections of suppliers to make something out of this invention that would really become nice and high level and beautiful so we could really use it on a wider scale.

Sue: I understand you took yourself off to Taiwan to get a sense of what existed there.

Monique: When I first read about it, it was something that they said that in Taiwan they were for the first time really doing this. That was not happening in China. And I was thinking, oh, I need to go there to have a look. What is this actually what they’re doing? So I just booked a flight, knocked on the door and said, hello. And they were thinking, who is that woman? But so that was actually the first step. And then I ordered a ton of pellets. At that moment, it was very challenging because you could not ship something directly from Taiwan to China. So it had to go over Hong Kong. And then we did some tests and see how this works. And then based upon the pellets, we did some investigation, how we could get this kind of quality in China and then started to do it more in China.

Sue: So from that early stage of seeing what was possible to here we are now in 2024, I imagine your industry has changed dramatically during that time. What are the significant changes that you have seen?

Monique: Well, when I started this, hardly anybody was looking at it and was working for it. And every time when I said something about, shall we use this, either it was to a supplier or it was to a customer, they were really thinking, what? Waste? Why would you put waste in a machine? Why would you put waste in a garment? You must be really not good in your mind to do that. And there was not so much known at that moment about the plastic pollution, which was already out there in the world. So during that time, slowly, it became significant that in the oceans there were a lot of plastics floating around and in the environment. And so it was really something that needed to be addressed. Over the last years, and especially the last six, seven years, the environmental interest of using recycled products in general and also recycled products in the fashion or textile industry became more and more in fashion, you would say. People wanted it. People wanted to make an impact. People saw that you could really do something positive if you start using recycled materials instead of virgin and then helping to solve an environmental problem.

Sue: So as it’s become more trendy, fashionable, I think it’s also important to probably distinguish for our listener that not all plastics are the same. I know you have RPP recycled polypropylene, there’s PETs, but I think if I went into my house today, many different types of plastics could be recycled. What are the specific differences and therefore how does that impact your industry?

Monique: So basically, there are six main types of plastics around here. And we focus on RPET, which is recycled plastic bottles. And from that, you can make polyester. And we focus on RPP, recycled polypropylene, which we take from the inside of your refrigerator. the plastic from the inside of your washing machine. We mix that with food containers, all that kind of plastics. And from there we make packaging, mainly woven and non-woven reusable shopping bags to also solve another problem, which is single-use plastic bags. And then recently we added another plastic, which is RPE, which is based on old plastic bags. And from old plastic bags, single-use plastic bags, we are making mailers, which are reusable, so for online ordering packaging. So the biggest issue with this plastic industry is that we have six main plastics, but as a humanity, we added 10,000 of different additives. And we did that because we wanted to have a shampoo bottle feeling softer, an inside of a refrigerator making more shiny, a certain type of colour and texture making it more appealing. And then while we have added all these additives, we created a huge problem because through this additives, it is becoming very hard to recycle it back to the base which can be used. So actually, for marketing reasons or for aesthetic reasons, we did things which actually made it very, very hard to recycle.

The impact of marketing on recycling

Sue: So society is really, has been exacerbating this problem of recycling because of our needs for marketing or what the marketeers think we need for marketing and packaging.

Monique: Yes, it’s not only marketing and packaging, it’s all kinds of branding, all kinds of plastics for different brands. If you talk about washing bottles or containers, which need to be a little bit more stiff. So it’s not just marketing, it’s just also the brands who want to distinguish themselves, having a specific colour, a specific feel, a specific look, a specific shape, which actually, to my opinion, should stop. Because we have created hundreds of thousands of varietals. They lead us to problems which we cannot solve and so yeah it should it should actually be reduced to a certain amount. I always say why don’t we put the big companies together in a room and say you come up with a solution and reduce the variations and don’t use all these additives because who really cares about what kind of bottle something is in.

Sue: So if we went back to a little bit more simplicity, it might make a big difference in terms of the recyclability of the packaging.

Monique: Yes, absolutely.

Sue: And given that your business has got a global footprint, Monique, I’m wondering what you’ve noticed about the different nuances. Is there a difference in different geographies?

Monique: Oh yeah, sure. I mean, if you talk about the early adapters of taking recycled materials in the fashion industry, I would say that that was definitely more in Europe. And so in countries like the United States, it was much later and it’s actually kind of starting. In Asia, it’d been not really existing until I would say a few years ago, where very often governments are the main reason why things are being recycled, because they just put a mandate. I’m just giving an example of China. They just say, okay, now we have to have everything recycled. So then it happens from that side. So it really depends on where you are, in which percentage is being done and how it’s being perceived by the consumer.

Sue: So given that so far we’ve talked about how you take the plastics and recycle them into textiles, who do you sell them onto then? Who are your customers?

Monique: Well, our main customers are big brands, big global brands who are making it into reusable shopping bags. We started with textiles, so we have beautiful brands who do sportswear and all kinds of high level ladies fashion and then children’s wear. But our biggest product at this moment is the 100% post-consumer recycled polypropylene coming out of your appliances in combination with food containers. So we sell it to large brands who want to make an impact in the world. So companies like Mars, Coca-Cola, but also we used it in the Middle East. We sell it to companies like Victoria’s Secret, Bath and Body Works, all these kind of beautiful companies. who are making a conscious choice to use recycled products instead of a virgin one.

Sue: It’s wonderful that companies are becoming more conscious and are seeing the value in using these textiles into their products and their garments. You said earlier, Monique, that these days recycling is becoming more trendy or fashionable. Is there a way that you are able to have some sort of traceability because I’m imagining in the industry there might be more unscrupulous people who claim things are recycled when perhaps they’re not?

Transparency in recycling industry

Monique: Well, that is a very big challenge in the industry, and that is a very good point. So we have specialized ourselves in being very, very, very brutally transparent. So we have created a unique blockchain, and a blockchain is normally a digital version of a paper trail. But what we have done is that we have made every step in the supply chain we are putting a QR code and a barcode in where we then scan the amount of that can be waste or it can be a fiber or in the next step it will be yarn or next step it will be a fabric and the next step it will be a product and on every step in the supply chain we then make a physical connection with the digital world. So what we are doing is we scan it and then put the weight in, the date, the geolocation, which is as clear as with Google Maps. So you can really see where that factory is. So if it’s a factory of a waste management factory or if it’s a factory of a final product. So you can really see where it is being done.

We only allow in our supply chain compliant suppliers. So we first check and make sure and we then allow within those suppliers only specific persons that we train and we monitor so that the information of the weight, the date, the photo, the geolocation at that moment is being done in the right way and being uploaded in the blockchain. And at that moment, you have something that you cannot fake because it is a very, very big challenge. There are a lot of people, unfortunately, who are knowingly or unknowingly, that’s also something, not all the brands are doing this knowingly. They are thinking that they maybe buy something recycled, but actually it’s not. And even with the current certifications out there, This is not a guarantee, because if you have a certified company where they have the right certifications for being a recycled standard, you can still be very creative with photoshopping in documents and things like that. And that’s a big, big, big challenge.

And it’s also, when we are doing this, it also reduces the risk of subcontracting, so that you are sure that you have the compliant factory. So social compliance is also then guaranteed in that blockchain. And on top of it, you measure the steps between the different supply chain parts so that you also can see, hey, supplier A to supplier B has this and this waste, but supplier C to D had that one. So we can go there, we teach them, then we can reduce their waste within the supply chain and we can make it even more efficient. And so we help the output and so we can reduce the price.

Sue: So as I’m listening to you, Monique, I’m just thinking about measurement of success, because presumably the rigour that you put into measuring every step of the process, there’s a cost to that, but also a value to that. So from a business context, how do you measure success?

Ensuring authenticity in supply chains

Monique: Well, we calculate with every step what is the reduction in water, what is the reduction in energy, and what is the reduction in carbon footprint compared to the virgin equivalent. Then we make an environmental impact report where we then for each product that we produce show what kind of support you are giving in reducing those three elements. So you then can actively participate in reducing the plastic problem. So we at Waste to Wear, we really are focused on bringing, making a lot of impact. And how you measure success, for me, it is the total of plastics in our case that we have taken out of the environment. So I think only a company which is successful in the sustainable business is when you really have a scale. Because it is beautiful if you’re trying to make things out of recycled material. It can also be something else than plastic. We also use, for instance, recycled cotton. But there are other companies who use all kinds of other base materials. And I think it’s beautiful we all do that, but I think it’s only successful if it’s really done on scale. Because then you really make a big difference.

Sue: And given that Waste2Wear is a global business, give us any facts or data about the scale of the impact that you’ve had to date.

Monique: Well, on the plastic bottles, I think to date, we are something about 100 million plastic bottles that we have recycled. And if you look at recycled polypropylene, where we make reusable shopping bags, and shopping bags are, of course, very, very light, and they are not big. So we have, I think, to date, used about 2,000 tons of plastic waste out of the inside of appliances in combination with food containers. And appliances, of course, you think about the refrigerator and the plastic inside that. Nobody’s looking at this. Post-consumer recycled polypropylene is only being recycled 1% in the world. So If you think about the little mountains of waste that are going to landfills, because there’s no value. Why? Because it’s difficult. It’s very difficult to take it out, to know the mix. We have a special patent pending mix of that, that we know when you have these kind of characteristics, you call it maybe a recipe that you can make a non-woven fabric out of it.

Sue: So it’s amazing what impact the business is having Monique. I guess for you personally, thinking back to the early 2000s and looking at the problem that was within the textile industry as you saw it, what’s giving you satisfaction today, all these years on?

Monique: Well, my satisfaction is people are on a big scale using our products and they have the QR codes with our name on it in combination with their brands, which is an enormous achievement. I think be seen as a trustworthy partner. that those brands are saying, okay, we are taking this out of the environment. We are showing you what the environmental impact is. We shown you also a film because that’s part of what we are creating with the QR code. We have not only the journey, but we have also the environmental impact and we have a film. And if you see that then the consumer is actually scanning that because that we can see that they scan that. people are educated that it is possible to use recycled materials for products that they normally were taking for granted, maybe, and they have to use virgin oil. Nobody wants that. So the satisfaction is that it’s actually, it’s being used, that people are really helping to actively play a role in the reduction of plastic waste.

Sue: So through the QR codes, you’re able to educate the buyers, the customers, to create demand in the world, I imagine.

Sustainability and changing demands

Monique: Yeah, the demand comes from different sides. It comes grassroots. I think that everybody knows that the new generation They are not saying to me, are you crazy? They are saying, of course, right? So there’s not a discussion anymore that things need to be sustainable. So the millennials, when they are sitting with a Gen Z or sitting on the driver’s seat, it’s going to be a comparison of how sustainable are you, not if you are sustainable. So I think if you want to stay relevant as a company, as a brand, as a producer of products, you need to be part of this, you need to be sustainable. I think that is key to understanding where it comes from, from the grassroots side on. But if you look at governments, because that’s from the top, finally governments in all kinds of countries and in all kinds of parts of the world, they are finally putting laws and legislations in place which help drive this demand. So it took a long time, but for instance, the European Union passed 16 laws last year, which are really, really having a big impact. So laws in different parts of the world on packaging in the UAE are very strict, for instance. where you, and rightly so, cannot even use paper bags anymore next year. Because why would we use trees to make pizza covers or bags? Why would we do that? We need trees for other things. And yeah, governments in the US, different states are now banning single-use plastics are driving usable and recyclable products and recycled products. And countries like China, which is just a popular country at the moment, but it has a very big impact in the world. And that government is really, really making big steps. So yeah, so it’s top down and bottom up, both.

Sue: I’m curious just to turn our attention to the idea of innovation. One of the things that sparked your interest at the outset was this innovation and you went to discover more about it. How do you keep yourself at the forefront of innovation these days?

The importance of innovation

Monique: I think the key to any business is that you need to keep innovating. So I don’t think that any business, no matter how small the innovation is, can have a status quo. You need to innovate. And this industry, the recycling industry, is very young and very new. So there is a lot to be discovered. There is a lot of mistakes to be made. There is a lot of upsides also to gain. So yeah, it’s be curious, work with scientists, work with universities, go on platforms, share ideas, be active and always be open-minded on finding solutions to something which will help solve a huge problem that we all have created in this world. I think it’s very important that we realize that this problem is everybody’s problem. And if you think that somebody else is taking care of it, no, we need to take care of it. So don’t think that this is a problem that will go away and somebody else will work on it. No, we ourselves, so we have to be actively participating. And so sharing also some solutions will bring others on ideas. And then you create maybe new opportunities and possibilities.

Sue: Reflecting on your own experience, Monique, over the years of being an entrepreneur, what’s been the biggest challenges that you’ve faced and how have you overcome them?

Monique: Well, being an entrepreneur is actually it’s a blessing and a curse, I would say. So it’s a blessing because You can do, or you try to do as much as you can, just when you think that this is a cool thing, then you go for it. That is a blessing. Entrepreneurs have curious minds. They, they, they are doers, they are triers, they are active. And that is what drives them, what makes them entrepreneurs. But the curse is of course, that you need to focus. And you need to make sure that what you think of is also executed in the right way. And there it often goes wrong, because execution demands a different kind of skill set. So it demands a structured organizational point of view. And I speak from my experience. It’s good to have people in your neighborhood who say, no, no, no, now we are not doing this. and that you’re listening. So another thing I would say is that an entrepreneur, so it’s a lonely state. Yeah. You come up with ideas very often in an organization. People are, they want, they want structure. They want to be guided. So it’s, it’s not easy to always manage that and always get the, I would say, understanding and you have to inspire people to follow and to make them as enthusiastic as you are to enable to create results.

Sue: And you bring in a word, of course, it’s directly relevant to this podcast, inspiration. Everybody needs inspiration. And how or where do you get your inspiration? Who inspires you these days, Monique?

Monique: Well, I’m inspired by young people who these days are really actively want to make a difference. So that’s an inspiration for me to see, but I’m also inspired by role models who overcame a huge obstacles and it doesn’t have to be in my industry and then still managed to succeed. We are working together with the Jane Goodall Institute, for instance. So if you look at Jane Goodall, that’s an incredible inspiration for me. I was very fortunate to meet with her several times. But also in history, there are inspirational women. In my case, I look at women as a bigger source of inspiration than men, because I think that I’m a woman that’s, for me, a little bit closer. Although I must say, there are, of course, incredible men. who really, really overcame a lot of things and just went on when everybody was saying it’s never going to work and then still went on and then succeeded. So I’m very inspired by personal stories. And so I read a lot of biographies. I follow people who make an impact, who are doing things which are new, not always a path well traveled. And so I get my inspiration from that.

Sue: So my sense is, from what you’re saying, there are people who are stepping into the unknown, out of their comfort zone, challenging themselves and doing things that others didn’t imagine were possible, are sources of inspiration for you.

Monique: Yes, absolutely. And it can be anything. It doesn’t always have to be a creating of a product. It can also be creating of a new stream of thinkers or educating people. I think education is key. Nowadays, kids don’t read so much. I can mention my son, for instance. He is in the gaming industry. He does a master’s now in the UK. And he is creating educational ways to using Gamification United to help kids to learn better or to reduce stress by playing a game or something like this, which normally you would do that by reading a book. So I think it’s all about doing things differently and trying to get people to learn more and to think differently and to think consciously.

Sue: So finally, a couple of questions for you, Monique. You mentioned your son there. I’m wondering if we fast forward 15 or 20 years from now, what contribution do you hope that you will have left as a legacy for those around you at that point?

A sustainable legacy

Monique: Well, I do hope that I actually could close the business because there’s no more plastic to recycle. That is my goal. I only think that it will not happen in my lifetime. So if it’s a little bit more achievable goal is that I hope that it becomes a given that you first think when you are looking at, in my case, fabrics and reusable shopping bags, that you first look at the recycled alternative. First look at that. What can we use to make a product out of something which is already existing as waste? See waste as a valuable source. So if that becomes a given, if that’s the first train of thought, first thing that you think of, then I think I have hopefully contributed a little bit to that.

Sue: What a lovely thought to leave us with, Monique, and I’m sure it might challenge our listener as well just to reflect on their own mindset around waste. My final question goes to you, back to the young Monique. As a young girl thinking about the world ahead of you and what you were imagining it might be like, if you were to go back and give that young Monique some advice now, knowing what you know about the world, what advice would you give yourself?

Monique: Wow. Interesting question. It’s actually a difficult question, I think. I think I would give myself the advice to measure impact quicker. Because when you start with something and you develop it and you don’t measure immediately impact, like does it work or does it not work, or even with the people that you work with, are they the right people to make this happen? And they can be great and nice, but are they right to help you and help us all to make this happen? So just reflect more, maybe quicker, and then measure impact. Because I think if I look at myself in my age, I think there’s a lot of things that maybe I could have done quicker by stopping things. So it’s not always good to keep on doing things. It’s also good to stop things. So you need to know what you need to keep on doing, and you need to very much know what you need to stop doing. And that reflection point, I think I should have done more and more often.

Viewing waste as valuable resource

Sue: Well, it’s been a great pleasure to hear your reflections today, Monique. I think you’ve stopped and made me think about this idea about what we consider waste and how we can see it as a valuable resource. And I hope that you’ve stopped our listeners in their tracks as well to reflect on this subject and how they view waste. For those that want to find out more and follow up with you and find out more about the business, how might they do that on the internet, Monique?

Monique: Well, we have a website. It’s www.waste2wear.com. And there, if you want to know more, you can send us, ask for information on our info and then we can add you to our newsletter or we can answer the questions that you want to know. And of course, I hope that a lot of people who are listening, thinking, hey, what can I do and change in my current daily life and in my company by using a recycled variation of what I’m normally using as a virgin one. We talked about three products, but we have a lot of experience. So I would very welcome people to think, oh, can you do also uniforms? Yes. Can we do also other side of packaging? Yes. Can we also do? So please reach out and then see if there’s something that we together can do and make real impact.

Sue: Wonderful. Well, thank you again for your time today. It’s been most informative and useful.

Monique: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure being here.

Sound Editor: Matias de Ezcurra

Producer: Sue Stockdale