The Spanish designer Jorge Penadés recreates traditional handicraft materials using microfiber pollutants instead of natural resources
Pollution becomes art at the hands of Jorge Penadés
Up to seven hundred thousand of invisible synthetic fibers can flow into waterways from a single load of dirty clothing on laundry day. This form of microplastic pollution is still a critical blind spot for the fashion and textile industries and accounts for thirty five per cent of the total marine microplastic contamination, according to studies by multiple environmental organizations. A human-scale solution to this macro-scale problem is being developed by Spanish industrial designer Jorge Penadés, who is re-routing microfibers from water bodies by transforming them into a contemporary material: Textile-Clay. Making the best of a lose-lose situation where microplastics either end up in landfills or pollute water systems, Penadés has found a way to prolong their entry into natural ecosystems. His namesake studio Oficina Penadés based in Madrid claims to be an office for heterodox ideas. Penadés shares about the motivation behind the project that debuted at Milan Design Week’s 5Vie district headquarters in a pop-up laboratory. The exhibition was curated by Maria Cristina Didero.
From textile dust to hand-crafted objects
Far from formulaic, the approach employed by Penadés substantiates his commitment towards green design. «We do not need to extract anything from our planet. The textile waste comes from the deterioration or decay that textiles suffer when we wash them, especially in the spinning process of the washing and drying machines. We search for textile waste inside the filters of industrial dryers used at large laundry companies». Currently their sourcing operations are localized to Spanish companies in the vicinity of their studio in Madrid. The waste composed of microfibers, small fabric scraps and sometimes hair is cleaned in bleach for a couple of hours, rinsed and dried to form textile dust. The second raw material, starch, is sourced from the textile industry where it is commonly used in finishing processes to add sheen, crispness and prevent wrinkling of fabrics. «We discovered that starch works as a great binding agent like a glue», reveals Penadés. Different ratios of starch and textile dust can be used depending on the properties of the clay to be made or the typology of the object. «Usually, we shape the raw material into clay as ‘churros’ by using the oldest method of working a dough». Penadés’ Textile-Clay is a facsimile of the natural material and utilizes similar manufacturing techniques to make the end product, such as hand rolling, molds and counter-molds, extrusions and freehand shapes. Most of these processes come from traditional clay making. Penadés highlights the advantages of his Textile-Clay apart from the obvious recycling of microplastic fibers: «We are reducing energy consumption to the minimum because we don’t need to fire and glaze the objects to transform the clay into a fully functioning material. Ceramic ovens waste a lot of energy due to the high temperatures that they need to reach. In our case, the Textile-Clay material just needs some time to dry up and be usable. It´s like creating an updated version of those traditional materials but from resources that are already available instead of extracting them from nature».
The lifespan of a microfiber
Microfibers are practically invisible to the naked eye, less than five millimeters in length and finer than one denier (one denier = ten micrometers), a unit of density based on the length and thickness of yarn. They are a type of microplastic stripped off clothes due to turbulence and friction during the unassuming act of machine washing. Through the wastewater collected, microfibers flow into sewage treatment facilities and up to thirty percent of them end up polluting natural water resources, rivers and oceans. According to the international organization Fashion Revolution, microfibers can absorb chemicals present in the wastewater or sewage sludge, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and carcinogenic persistent organic pollutants (PoPs). They also contain other chemical additives from the manufacturing phase of textiles, from plasticizers and flame retardants to antimicrobial agents. Entire marine ecosystems are contaminated as these chemicals infect animals and consequently their growth and reproductive cycles. A 2017 study by Ellen MacArthur Foundation states that without preventive action, twenty two million tons of microfibers will enter earth’s oceans by 2050.
Research on microplastic pollution is still at its nascent stage but environmentalists playing the blame game lean heavily towards the fashion industry as a key culprit, increasing the conscious consumer’s hardship of making sustainable consumption choices. Clothing made from recycled plastic bottles or fishing nets was a widely applauded concept but has now engendered an eco-paradox due to the microfiber plastic shedding every time these garments are washed in a machine. Penadés’ Textile-Clay is a worthy solution for this unwanted inventory of waste. However, the designer readily admits, the team takes no pride in the fact that the currently sourced textile waste is not segregated into plastic and organic microfibers, due to the use of synthetic dyes and finishing agents even in garments made of organic fabrics. Commenting on the disposal of the clay object, Penadés alludes to his future vision for Textile-Clay: «We are in a beta phase; the goal is to use one hundred percent organic microfibers and make completely biodegradable objects. But the objects can live forever; they’re made from a new type of polymer».
Filtering mechanisms and techniques to reduce shedding
As oceans belch out microfibers blown ashore via sea breezes, studies continue to reveal that waste-water treatment plants can only provide between sixty five to ninety percent efficacy in intercepting microfibers before they enter natural water bodies. Additional preventive measures much earlier in the lifespan of a microfiber have been developed in the last decade, from upgraded washing machine filters to accessories like laundry bags and balls to combat this. Machine filters added to water outflow ducts capture shedding, plastics and dirt before they enter waste water. Due to the inability to quantify shedding of microfibers, evaluating the filter’s level of capability is difficult and dependent on multiple factors including detergent, force of spin cycles, temperature, type of fabric and age of the garment. Functioning in a similar fashion, laundry bags are used to contain dirty laundry while being washed in the machine. They are usually made with woven monofilaments that do not disintegrate and confine any shedding from the clothes within them. Another popular device is the laundry ball that looks to nature for inspiration. Much in the way corals filter ocean water, the laundry ball is added into the machine during wash where it captures microfibers, clumping them into visible tufts that can be disposed of accurately or recycled instead.
Environmental researcher Stephanie Karba affirms that everything from the quality of the raw material and processing machinery to the skill and expertise of the mill can affect the quality of a fabric and its consequent shedding. Going by the belief that prevention is better than treatment, controlling textile manufacturing parameters is a credible strategy to reduce the microfiber release from synthetic and non-biodegradable fabrics. A multitude of techniques can be applied in the stages of production such as laser and ultrasound cutting, coatings, pre-washing and eliminating mechanical finishes like shearing which damages the fabric. Microfibers of natural textiles – hemp and organic cotton that use clean dyes and restrict chemical usage, pose no threat to the environment.
Regulations and legislature: tackling the problem
As the memo on microfiber pollution is still being received worldwide, few countries have developed a regulatory system to keep it in check, with France being among the first in the world to take legislative steps. The country’s Anti-waste Law 2020 for transformation into a circular economy included a section that decreed: By January 2025, all new washing machines in France must include a filter to stop synthetic clothes from polluting waterways. California’s Assembly Bill 1952, amended in 2020 that all state owned and operated washing machines would require a new microfiber filter system by January 2022, to improve the condition of their waterways. In the recent past, many bills have been proposed across states of America including the New York Assembly Bill A01549 of April 2018, which proposed labelling of garments containing more than fifty per cent synthetic fiber as products contributing to microfiber waste, in order to encourage washing by hand. Most of these bills have not been passed as large businesses tend to work on a profit first, planet second ethos. Current laws and standards reflect a ‘defence is better than offense’ stance, wherein manufacture of microfibers continues in parallel with innovations to capture them.
Industrial designer who established his own practice in 2015, through his namesake studio Oficina Penadés. His work has been legitimized by different museums and galleries including National Museum Design – Stockholm, Museu del Disseny -Barcelona, The Aram Gallery – London, Rossana Orlandi – Milan and at multiple European Design Week venues.