Circularity in the textile industry: switching to circular materials must not compromise performance and durability
Polartec towards circularity: Houdini Sportswear
As the relative prices of clothing have sunk, especially in the last fifty years, figures now show that we own five times the number of garments that we did in 1970. Business models that prioritize circular economy have been adopted, but the misinterpretation of circular economy is to focus on the end-of-life, that is just the last stage of a nine-step procedure. The overriding objective of a textile organization must be manufacturing a product that lasts. Houdini Sportswear was established in Stockholm in 2001, the brand evolved from a linear to a circular business model, with the objective of mimicking the complex yet functioning system that nature is, where everything flows naturally and nothing ever becomes waste but a resource to craft something else. Shifting from linear to circular entails moving from a transactional economy towards a relational economy, in which partners, suppliers, customers and end users have an active role. Houdini’s Mono Air Project, carried out in partnership with Polartec, embodies a collective evolution. Addressing the issue of microfiber shedding, the brands embarked on a six-year extensive research: they started discussing the project in 2013 and launched their fully circular fleece jacket in 2019. Durability and performance should never be threatened when switching to circular and sustainable materials.
Lampon reporting: Biodegradability in landfills
Professor Morton Barlaz took the lead of the discussion focusing on biodegradability in landfills. When addressing biodegradability, we must define the environmental issue we want to solve among: plastic accumulation in the oceans; litter; landfill space; overall environmental footprint – different problems have different solutions. To analyze the viability of a biodegradable alternative in the textile industry, one must consider the entire lifecycle of a product: manufacturing, use phase and end of life. Each of these phases has inputs and emissions: manufacturing emits carbon dioxide; the use phase causes the release of microfibers during washing. With regard to the end of life of an item, biodegradation must be distinguished from disintegration, the latter being the first visible fragmentation of a product into microplastics. Biodegradation is defined as the conversion of an organic material to carbon dioxide, water and biomass, and depends on the natural conditions of the environment. Looking at the aggressiveness of various types of environment, compost appears to be the most aggressive, followed by soil, fresh water and landfill. The presence of fungi and bacteria is essential to determine the biodegradation rate of these environments: bacteria are present and active in all these environments; fungi are active and present in compost and soil but inactive in water, marine environments and landfills. To degrade some recalcitrant polymers, fungi are needed as they are able to break down difficult polymers, including natural polymers such as keratin or chitin. In light of this analysis, landfill is one of the weakest environments for biodegradation, partially because a high temperature is required to foster this process.
How materials behave in landfills
The biodegradability of a textile may not always be good if its final destination is landfill. To explain how materials behave in landfills, a chart depicted the effect of a material decay rate on global warming potential. If the ultimate disposition of that material is disposed of in a landfill, the faster it degrades the more methane is going to be released into the atmosphere. The problem is that methane collection is not properly regulated, at least in the US. The greatest material, according to the chart, was a material that had no biodegradability and didn’t decompose. Based on the weighted average landfill in the US, the optimal material is not biodegradable because about thirty percent of US landfill methane emissions is vented to the environment, another thirty to thirty-five percent is captured and flared, another thirty-five percent is captured for energy. Not all generated methane is collected, and not all collected methane is used for energy, some is just flared. Above all, some landfills do not collect methane. According to this interpretation, biodegradation in landfills is not desirable if gas is not collected properly. «Bearing in mind this chart only considers disposal and not manufacturing, we must pinpoint the source of the problem. If I’m trying to solve a minor problem, biodegradability is the answer, but if I’m trying to solve a sustainability problem, it may or may not be the answer», Professor Barlaz said. As a result, it is imperative to focus on how a material behaves in a landfill, because that is what is going to contribute to the environmental footprint and that’s where the rate of decomposition is crucial. Stricter regulations on greenhouse gases and methane collection in landfills will be necessary, especially in the US. Europe has already made a step forward: the European Landfill Directive phases out all putrescible waste, stating that all waste must be treated organically by composting or gasification or has to be incinerated. Future outcomes on the standardization of biodegradable products should encourage the mandatory biodegradability of certain products such as coffee capsules and tea bags. Most biodegradation standards have been focusing on materials with a short life cycle but don’t provide an answer to materials with a long lifecycle. As a result, new standards will be needed to solve plastic pollution, specifically in marine environments. «Plastic which ends up in the environment should be nonpersistent, biodegradable in the medium term, such as wood or natural polymers», Bruno De Wilde commented.
LCA: a scientific tool to analyze the impact of recyclable plastics
A pivotal tool to analyze recyclable plastics is the Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA) – a high-level nutrition label that quantifies how a product affects the environment over its entire lifecycle, from the manufacturing to the final disposal and end of life. LCAs include specific information: categories, ISO standards and a functional unit. Each category must be taken into account when analyzing the environmental impact of a material, as each resource is wrapped up into the final product throughout its entire life – cradle-to-grave. After laying out the definition of LCA, Jeff Strahan provided two case studies to stress the importance of this analysis. The Danish government commissioned a full LCA on the environmental impacts of the production, use and disposal of LDPE grocery bags, in order to eliminate litter. The study compared the number of reuses of a bag to the total environmental footprint. Several types of materials were analyzed, among which a polypropylene nonwoven bag, which had to be used fifty-two times to have the same environmental footprint as one LDPE bag. The most critical comparison was drawn with an organic cotton tote bag: it had to be used 20,000 times to have the same environmental footprint as one LDPE grocery bag. The Danish government decided to ban LDPE bags, because their problem was litter, not the overall environmental footprint. «Do the science, then make a decision», is the message this case study reveals. Decisions must be based on scientific data. The second narrative thread led to a report drafted by the European Environmental Agency, that compared the environmental impact for the manufacturing of one kilogram of dyed, woven fabric. An LCA was carried out analyzing a variety of textiles: nylon, acrylic, elastane, polyester and cotton. Depending on the issue that was tackled, these fabrics had a different impact on the environment. Looking at climate change, cotton had the lowest impact and nylon had the worst. Looking at land use, cotton went from the lowest to the highest impact, and nylon went from the highest to the lowest impact. «The choice of a fiber should match the textile product’s application, the properties required and the expected lifespan and end-of-life processes» is the guiding principle that must be followed when analyzing the environmental impact of a fiber. LCAs have proven to be an analytical framework to compare and analyze materials. Business and policy decisions must be driven by science. Sometimes biodegradability is not the answer, longevity is.
The creator of innovative and sustainable textile solutions for outdoor apparel, bought together several experts to share the latest outcomes in terms of sustainable science, with the aim to achieve a circular business model. By 2025, the company aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, water usage and solid waste by twenty-five percent, while increasing the use of renewable energy sources by ten percent.