Stop using petroleum-based plastics for textiles: it won’t fix the issue of plastic pollution as these recycled textiles release microplastics every time you put them into the washing machine
Raising interest in sustainable fashion, concern about marine plastic pollution, and technological progress incentivizes and sustains the search for biodegradable fashion materials that can channel designers’ vision while posing no threat to the environment during their lifecycle and the end of it. Sustainability has become crucial to consumers, making sustainable development the priority on the fashion industry’s agenda. Companies are trying to evolve to achieve sustainable operating models: the progress is visible, but insufficient. To cater to conscious consumers, the industry will need to morph and adopt traceable materials, low-impact processes, forward-thinking technologies, and business models that prioritize circular economy. 2020 brought uncertainty to the fashion industry, as growth in the global economy slowed down. According to McKinsey Global Fashion Index analysis, the sector has suffered a decline of about ninety percent in economic profit in 2020, after a four percent rise in 2019.
In 2021, European sales are expected to be two to seven percent lower than in 2019. In the United States, the number of sales is projected to fall by seven to twelve percent in 2021. With its value of 1.5 trillion dollars, the fashion industry provides profit opportunities for investors and companies, even during times of subdued sales. BCG and Fashion for Good estimate that there are twenty billion dollars to thirty billion dollars in financing opportunities each year to develop and expand innovations and business models to achieve gradual, sustainable changes by 2030. Despite barriers to financing such as the lack of structured innovation and business process, commercialization channels for investors, technical expertise, and the scientific knowledge needed to support, expand and invest in forward-thinking technologies, investments have been made. Sustainable funds as a whole are attracting investors, which in 2019 put €120 billion into sustainable investment options, according to Morningstar data.
The use of sustainable materials is a crucial aspect of sustainability in fashion, as the latter is a manufacturing industry. Moving away from popular and unsustainable textiles has to be one of the industry’s priorities and an area where investments need to be made. Since the mid-1990s, synthetic fibers have hegemonized the marked overruling cotton. The Textile Exchange Preferred Fiber Material Market Report of 2019 states that sixty-two percent of all fibers used in the fashion industry are made from synthetics derived from fossil fuel crude oil, like polyester acrylic, nylon, polypropylene, and elastane. Future fiber growth is expected to be made up of around ninety-eight percent synthetics, of which ninety-five is predicted to be polyester. Cotton makes up more than twenty-four of all fibers used, with about twenty-six million tonnes. One of the oldest used fibers and non-food crops in the world, cotton has several environmental downsides derived from its industrialized, large-scale production. It is linked to soil erosion and degradation, water contamination, and scarcity. Synthetics fibers and cotton present a biodegradability issue, whether because of their composition or their manufacturing. Microfibers generated from the laundering of cotton tend to biodegrade, unlike the ones released from polyester-based fabrics. Still, it’s yet to be seen how coating and other chemical treatments can influence cotton’s biodegradability and its overall impact on the marine environment.
The fashion industry has focused on recycled petroleum-based textiles to switch to sustainable, circular materials. As a result, recycled polyester’s market share rose from eight percent in 2007 to fourteen percent in 2017. Compared to its virgin counterpart, this material has a lower carbon footprint, as its manufacturing requires less energy. The use of plastic waste for textile manufacturing decreases our dependence on petroleum and diverts waste from landfills and oceans, but it doesn’t solve plastic pollution. Microorganisms cannot degrade petroleum-based plastics like PET, as recycled synthetic fibers share the same raw materials as their virgin counterparts. This characteristic makes them a viable secondary raw material for textiles, and a threat to the oceans, as these recycled-textiles, can still release microplastics. Studies have shown that one load of laundry of polyester clothes can release 700 000 microplastic fibers, which can infiltrate our food chain and discharge toxins into the environment. As a result, about half a million tonnes of plastic microfibers end up in the ocean from washing clothes every year. Estimates suggest that the microplastic pollution on land in soil and freshwater systems may be as concerning as the one in the marine environment, with an estimated fifty-two percent of primary microplastics remaining trapped in the soil. Airborne microplastics from terrestrial origins are an issue from a human health perspective due to the risk of inhalation into the body. Microplastics aren’t the sole complication that comes with the use of non-biodegradable materials. At the end of their lifecycle, after being discarded these materials break down, releasing toxic elements that can leach into water bodies and the soil, affecting its health and usability. In 2018, the global textile industry produced around 107 million megatons of fibers. Over the last twenty years, the production has more than doubled and is expected to reach 145 million megatons in 2030. Given its production volumes, the textile industry can keep on causing environmental damage if producers won’t switch to biodegradable materials.
To make fashion materials that don’t release microplastics during their lifetime and are biodegradable and compostable, manufacturers are experimenting with biopolymers. Bioplastics or biopolymers are moldable plastic-like materials that, unlike conventional plastics, derived from petroleum, are made with bio-based chemical compounds that can be obtained from renewable resources like sugars, starches, and lipids such as corn, sugar cane, beets, and plant oils. Polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB), the first known bioplastic, was discovered by agricultural engineer and biologist Maurice Lemoigne while researching the Bacillus megaterium. At the time, little to no heed was paid to Lemoigne’s discovery, as during the early nineteenth century, petroleum was accessible and the side effects of plastics unknown. Those were the years when the explosion in the development of plastics and their use boomed, leading to our dependence on this material for every aspect of our life.
The petroleum crisis of the mid-1970s and environmental concerns about petroleum-based plastics are what brought bio-plastics out of oblivion and gave an impulse to research and the subsequential commercial use of these materials. Researchers are developing technologies to manufacture biosynthetics from a wider range of raw materials like biomass, algae, fungi, and bacteria. Several of these have been piloted at a concept level; but they are yet to be available on the market. Companies like Bold threads and Malai have used these technologies to develop their biopolymers. The assessment conducted by the European Commission shows that the annual income of bio-based products and biofuels is approximately fifty-seven billion euros, involving 300,000 jobs. It is estimated that in 2020, the share of bio-based chemical products in all chemical product sales rose to twenty-two percent, with a compound annual growth rate of close to 20%.
Thanks to their chemical composition, some bioplastics can biodegrade in specialized facilities, and others are home-compostable. Bioplastics are molded into various products such as eating utensils, surgical implants, and synthetic textiles. The latter use is advantageous for the sustainable fashion industry that has developed ways of harnessing this technology to its full potential to suit its environmental and aesthetic needs. The biomimetic design concept called ‘Cradle to Cradle®’ was developed in the 1990s by Prof. Dr. Michael Braungart, William McDonough, and EPEA Hamburg. It aims at creating a safe and healthy circulation of materials and nutrients in two cycles, a biological cycle and a technical one, where chemically harmless constituents enrich the ecosystems and feed a productive technical metabolism. «Now, they can make a biopolymer derived not from corn-starch, but from CO2 collected from the environment. This material is compostable and Cradle to Cradle Certified™ Gold».
The impact of a material doesn’t stop once it has been manufactured, as it can be dyed and treated, resulting in various environmental outcomes depending on the technique used. A material is then used, washed and, at the end, discarded. Its environmental impact is determined by its behavior during each stage of its lifecycle, which makes formulating a comprehensive evaluation of a textile material complex. A zero-waste, compostable and biodegradable fashion material is yet to put on the market. Hemp, thanks to its low-waste cultivation and the possibility to wave it through a mechanical process that requires no chemicals, qualifies as one of the most sustainable fibers available on the market. Investments in sustainable fashion textiles focused on research and the rediscovery of ancient and local crops that can solve the environmental issues caused by fashion are still needed, if the industry wishes to cater to the next generation of conscious consumers.
Biopolymers are polymeric biomolecules which contain monomeric units that are covalently bonded to form larger molecules. The prefix ‘bio’ means they are biodegradable materials produced by living organisms. A wide variety of materials usually derived from biological sources such as microorganisms, plants, or trees can be described using the term ‘biopolymer’. Materials produced by synthetic chemistry from biological sources such as vegetable oils, sugars, fats, resins, proteins, amino acids, and so on can also be described as biopolymer. As compared to synthetic polymers which have a simpler and more random structure, biopolymers are complex molecular assemblies that adopt precise and defined 3D shapes and structures.