The case of recycled polyester: sediment in the polyester-oriented textile era: to reduce single-use plastic items dispersion
Microplastics release in the washing machine
Microfibers are a microplastics sub-group, which derives from synthetic textiles that are discharged from sewage plants. It’s proven that, during a standard washing cycle, more than 1.900 microplastics fibers can be shed from just a single garment. Microfibers were first acknowledged in 2004 when some in fibrous shape were collected from beaches, estuarine and subtidal sediments in the United Kingdom by scientists who were able to identify synthetic polymers like acrylic, polyamide, polyester and polypropylene. Only in 2011, when researchers found out that the size of polyester and acrylic fibers in clothing and the size of the ones found in natural habitats were the same, it was pointed out how the washing of our clothes could be responsible for marine microplastics dispersion. Textile fibers can be natural – from animal, vegetal or mineral source – or man-made, divided in two categories: regenerated or synthetic. The latter, object of interest of this article, represents sixty percent of the annual global consumption of fibers, becoming the main water pollutant on Earth. Seeing the risks and the consequences alerted in years of scientific research and literature, can microplastics dispersion be stopped before it enters the oceans? If so, in what proportion? After the discovery of microplastics, possible solutions to tackle the problem have been proposed, highlighting the following issues: removing plastic beads from personal care products, encouraging the use of biodegradable materials, adopting sustainability best practice to reuse, recycling and recovery of plastics, the development of clean-up and bioremediation technologies, and lastly the improvement of separation efficiency of wastewater treatment plants.
Lampoon reporting: Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the amount of personal hygiene litter and personal protective equipment (PPE) grew over three times than the one registered in 2019. Most of the PPE recommended for preventing coronavirus transmission is made of plastic, and a majority of them do not completely break down. A face mask alone can release up to 173.000 microfibers per day in a simulated marine environment, according to a study published in Environmental Advances. We spoke to Ryan and Rebecca McKinney, founders of Dabs, a start-up based in North-East of England, about the possibility of offering a sustainable alternative to single use nitrile and rubber gloves. «They say there’ll be around seven billion dollars of disposable gloves sold by 2027. We wanted to design and create gloves that weren’t only protective but also lightweight, breathable, gender neutral and antimicrobial. The gloves are made of a hybrid of 88% Reprieve and 12% spandex that gives the stretch. The fabric is sprayed with Polygiene Viral-Off and Odor Crunch technologies, then cut by laser machine into pattern pieces, before being handmade into glove shapes graded on scale plates». Dabs gloves’ yarn is a blend of pelletized plastic bottles and spandex, another polymer fabric known for its elasticity and strength. The production of synthetic fibers is energy-intensive and uses large amounts of fossil fuels (more than seventy billion barrels of oil are used every year according to Forbes) and it causes the release of toxins into the atmosphere. Reprieve polyester – which is made out of recycled plastic bottles though – is extruded cutting down crude oil wellhead and refinery and uses 59% less energy than the production of new polyester. Petrochemicals such as Naptha, Xylenes, Paraxylene, TA and MEG are avoided.
The downside of recycled materials
Producing garments from recycled materials gives new purpose to discarded elements, but it comes with some downsides. Recycled polyester – just like new polyester – is responsible for microplastics pollution. Particles of the fabric break down every time the garment is washed, causing the dispersion of millions of plastic bits. It tends to be used in the manufacture of outdoor or apparel gear and, unlike nylon, is less expensive, although its production process involves greater amounts of energy and impacts greenhouse gasses. The advanced technologies that allowed the development of recycled synthetic fibers does not exclude the fact that the resulting fabric created from the pelletized plastic material is a petroleum by-product. Even though polyester can be recycled, it remains a non-biodegradable fabric, because it is made up of a complex molecular structure that does not readily decompose. This not only adds to the problem of microfibers pollution, but to the correct disposal of products made out of polyester, that will eventually end up in the landfill. Polyester takes over a period of seven hundred years to degrade or, in the worst scenario, it is disposed of by incineration, one of the causes of global warming. By 2025, there will be over one ton of plastic for every three tons of fish in the oceans, and by 2050 the weight of plastic will overtake that of fish. A fast-growing global coalition has been trying to stop this source of plastic pollution since early 2016 through the Ocean Clean Wash campaign.
DABS gloves and the need of new policies
When speaking to Ryan and Rebecca McKinney, creators of Dabs, they stated that the fiber they chose might not be biodegradable but it’s the adequate solution for the making of protective durable gloves. «Our gloves are embedded with treatments that eliminate the 99% of viruses and bacteria that deposit on the surface. This means there’s no need for them to be washed or cleaned with alcohol solutions». This factor reduces the number of washing cycles and the amount of microplastics causing marine pollution. Thinking of any possible and realistic solution to this complicated problem that extends to a considerable scale, is not easy nor quick. Consumers could stop using synthetic materials for clothing, but at this moment, its market share measures sixty-three percent of total income, so it wouldn’t be realistic. Switching from synthetic materials to organic materials then comes with other substantial environmental costs. Biodegradable polymers could be a replacement to synthetic polymers, but current discoveries have highlighted biodegradable polymers only degrade in soil, while marine environment – which is contaminated by salt that acts as a preservation agent – creates the conditions that allows the biopolymer bacteria to thrive and fight the decomposition process. The first positive step would be raising awareness about the microfiber problem. The general public, but also professionals from the fashion industry and policymakers, are not enough aware. Consumers are not asking for non-microfiber shedding clothing and companies don’t use microfiber release criteria in the design and production chain. Policies also to contain or avoid their spreading into the environment are lacking.
Tackling microplastics issues
By changing the washing behavior, consumers can mitigate the number of microfibers released in the water drains: as a matter of fact, while using conventional domestic washing machines – that could be implemented with filters to prevent microfibers release – researchers suggest washing with a quicker, cooler cycle to cut by up to 52% the microfiber release into the environment. Many initiatives that come from environmental minded entrepreneurs are already available on the market, like Simple Ecology natural cotton-made washing bags. The producers claim that the fabric bag, completely free of nylon, polyester, acrylic and other synthetic fibers, are able to catch the 99% of fibers released in the washing process. Their colored bags are dyed using GOTS approved dyes and contain low levels of chemicals, heavy metals, azo, and formaldehyde. Guppy Friend is also developing a filter for washbasins, for household and commercial use as well as restraint devices for floating debris. The first microfiber-catching laundry ball, Cora Ball, designed by a team of ocean scientists, educators and environmental protectors is currently in the making. It is proposed as a human-scale, consumer solution. Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, Cora Ball is expected to launch direct sales in the USA in late July with other countries to follow.
Based in Hartlepool, England, Dabs is a start-up producing protective gloves made from recycled polyester, meant for long term use. The fabric, a combination of Repreve yarn and spandex, is sprayed with Polygiene Viral Off and Odor Crunch patented technologies to achieve the 99% levels of reduction of viruses such as Influenza A, Bird Flu, Norovirus and Corona (SARS). Born in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic from the idea of Ryan and Rebecca McKinney, Dabs offers a sustainable alternative to nitrile and rubber gloves, one of the main causes of marine pollution in the last year.