Illustration by TIME; reference image courtesy of Tushita Gupta

From socks and shirts to bedding and towels, the amount of textiles thrown out in the U.S. has almost doubled in recent years, going from nearly 9,500 tons in 2000 to just over 17,000 tons in 2018, according to the latest government data. And the vast majority of this—about 85%—goes to landfill or is incinerated rather than being recycled or donated. Refiberd is using AI to change that thanks in part to chief technology officer Tushita Gupta’s innovative work.

The California-based company was founded by Sarika Bajaj and Gupta, both now 27, in 2020. Their goal is to provide the most accurate summary of what types of materials are in any given textile item. Successful recycling depends on knowing what something is made of, so that items can be precisely sorted into like materials. This is particularly true for chemical recycling—which breaks down synthetic materials like nylon and polyester that were once impossible to recycle. Once the materials are recycled, they can be remade into fabric for new textiles—cutting waste and encouraging circularity in the fashion industry.

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Gupta is the brains behind the company’s AI technology. As she explains, the system works by passing textiles on a conveyor belt under a hyperspectral camera to examine the items. The AI then distinguishes between background noise (anything that’s not the specific item) and the textile itself, comparing the data to an in-house fiber catalog before “determin[ing] the material composition of the textile no matter what blend, or how many fibers are in it.” The more it processes, and the greater number of complex textiles it examines, the more the AI learns—becoming ever more precise—and the more materials can be properly recycled.

In January, Refiberd raised over $3.4 million in seed funding, and it’s now actively undergoing a series of pilot projects in the U.S. and Europe, in which four different companies are sending Refiberd a couple hundred pounds of textile waste to sort.

For Gupta, it’s about more than just reimagining fashion waste; it’s about cultural change. Though she’s worked in AI for several years, she says it’s still all too rare to see women in technical—rather than operational—roles. Of Refiberd’s four full-time employees, three are women; its board is also all women. “It’s been pretty cool for us to be a woman-led company,” she says. “It’s really cool that we get to build … the culture that we want to build, and break the systems that exist today.”

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