INTRODUCITON INTO SYNTHETIC FIBERS AND THEIR IMPACT ON THE INVIRONMENT
Last month for the first time I participated in Plastic Free July challenge! I am happy to say that I continue to avoid single use plastics as much as I can well past July and hoping to make it a permanent shift in my daily habits. Around that time, a lot of conversations went on about plastic with my friends and colleagues. So I decided to ask myself this question: “Can fashion ever be plastic free??” The answer is not that simple, as the role and the environmental impact of synthetic fabrics is a very complex subject for the fashion industry. Plastic Free July movement started 9 years ago and is now joined by more than 300 million people around the world. Its goal is to fight plastic pollution by avoiding single-use plastics. So perhaps, just like Plastic Free July movement, we can also learn about ways and technologies that will help reduce plastic pollution coming from our own clothes.
Almost 2/3 of all textile fibers produced today are synthetics (like polyester, nylon, acrylic, and elastane) and they are essentially plastics. Producing synthetic fiber requires a chemical process to transform single units or “monomers” into “polymers”, it mostly uses non-renewable resources (fossil fuels) and a lot of it! According to a 2015 study, 330 million barrels of oil were used to make synthetic fabrics*. This process is very energy intensive and contributes significantly to climate change. Compared to cotton for example, polyester produces nearly 3 times as many CO2 emissions*. It also requires large amounts of water for cooling and some factories without proper water treatment systems can release potentially dangerous chemicals into the environment. Being man-made chemically produced structures, synthetics are therefore incompatible with natural environment, they are not biodegradable and can stay in landfills for hundreds of years. Furthermore, the recently discovered issue of microplastics entering our oceans only amplified the concerns over the negative impacts of synthetic fabrics. It has been estimated that each year around half a million tonnes of plastic microfibers (an equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles!) shed during the washing of plastic-based textiles (such as polyester, nylon, or acrylic) end up in the ocean*.
beach clean up day with my friends on Costa Dorada, Spain
The most important synthetic fiber POLYESTER makes up around 51% of global fiber production* and it is essentially the same material as the common water bottle made of PET (polyethylene terephthalate). Since 1980’s polyester production increased 10 folds from about 5.2 million tonnes annually to 53 million in 2017* and it is expected to grow further as global demand for textile continues to rise. So we can all agree that polyester and other synthetic fibers have a negative environmental impact and, being relatively inexpensive, they certainly contributed to the rapid growth of “fast fashion”. But we should also understand why they were created in the first place, what are the positive aspects that synthetic fabrics can offer us and what is fashion industry doing today to reduce their negative impact.
Since the early and mid-20th century when nylon and polyester were developed, scientists have been constantly trying to create fabrics that would surpass properties of natural plant and animal based fibers. Synthetics are more durable and stronger than their natural counterparts, they dry faster and can be waterproof, windproof and sweat-permeable, wrinkle and shrinkage resistant. They offer elasticity, warmth and lightness. They are also easier to wash and some are completely stain resistant.
The role of synthetics in the sports and outdoor wear sector if extremely important and certain products like high-performance wear, outdoors gear, professional athletes clothing, and running shoes just can’t be replaced by natural fibers (for the most part). Many world’s biggest sporting brands like Patagonia, Adidas, Puma, Nike, Timberland, Volcom to name a few have long been working on R&D projects together with major fiber manufacturers, recycling companies and organization to reduce the environmental impact of synthetic textiles and increase the use of recycled polyester and nylon in their product lines.
There is also a misconception that synthetic fabrics are only used to make “cheap” fashion, in reality many mid-tier brands and even luxury designers use synthetics in their collections as they simply can’t achieve same properties and aesthetics if they use natural fabrics. Some designers, like Stella McCartney for example, work with synthetics for animal welfare reasons aimed to completely replace the use of real leather and fur. When I started my career in fashion, I worked as a sales assistant at Issey Miyake boutique in New York. I quickly noticed that most of the fabrics he used were synthetics, specifically polyester, to create his signature pleated garments. In fact, if it wasn’t for polyester, his entire line PLEATSPLEASE wouldn’t even exist, and we would have never witnessed the genius of his incredibly beautiful and innovative designs!
positive changes in the industry to reduce negative impact of synthetics
Fortunately, there are many already developed and new emerging technologies, innovative solutions and international multi-stakeholders organizations that are working towards a more sustainable production and use of synthetic materials. Here are some examples of the most important developments and key players in this area:
It has been estimated that substituting one metric ton of virgin polyester with its recyclable counterpart can reduce toxic substances by up to 90%, energy consumption by 60% and emissions by up to 40%*. From 2007 to 2017 the use of recycled polyester has almost doubled – from 8% to 14% of global polyester production*. It is mainly made from PET bottles and other post-consumer waste and garments. Recycled nylon is mainly produced from discarded fishing nets. Recycling can be done either mechanically (plastics are shredded, ground, melted and then re-span into new yarn) or chemically (fibers undergo chemical depolymerization to break down PET into their raw materials on a molecular level and then are converted back into new polymers). Recycling initiatives by companies like Unifi (Repreve fabric), Thread (Ground for Good), Santanderina (Seaqual fabric), Aquafil (Econyl fabric), Ecoalf, Parley for the Oceans and Plastics for Change and many others not only help clean up plastic waste around the world to be re-used in fashion industry, but they also provide opportunities for people in mostly disadvantaged parts of the world to earn faire wages, and make the supply chain transparent and traceable. Some of the biggest brands that committed to using more recycled synthetics include: Adidas (aim to use recycled polyester in 100% of their product by 2024!), Eileen Fisher, Esprit, H&M, Target, Puma, Outerknown, Volcom, Timberland, Volcom, Nike etc.
An emerging science of bio-based synthetic fibers offers an alternative to oil-based production. Such fiber consists of polymers wholly or partly made from renewable resources such as sugars, starches, corn, and plant oils. There are also new technologies under way to produce feedstock from algae, fungi and bacteria*. It is still in its infancy (less than 1% of all synthetic fiber) and not all types are by definition “bio-degradable”. Bio-based PLA and PHA plastics can biodegrade but only under certain circumstances. Some of the innovations here include: LYCRA® T400® EcoMade fiber which is mostly (>65%) made from recycled plastic and plant-based resources like corn, DuPont Sorona® fiber partly bio-based polyester polymer derived from renewably sourced corn sugar, and EVO® by Fulgar – a 100% bio-based nylon yarn made from castor oil.
The industry players are joining forces to combat this issue. It is estimated that additional 22 million tonnes of microfibers will end up in the oceans between 2015 and 2050 if no action is taken*. International organizations like Greenpeace are publishing reports to better understand microfibers pollution effects. The European Outdoor Group launched a project to compare the impacts of recycled vs virgin polyester and nylon on microfiber pollution and created an industry working group to build a collaborative approach to address this issue. Innovative solutions to stop microfibers from washing are also available like Guppyfriend laundry bag or Xeros’ filtration innovation system XFiltra compatible with any home washing machine.
Lead by Ellen Macarthur Foundation the vision of circular economy is particularly applicable to synthetics as it could potentially be recycled over and over again without losing any of its initial properties. To achieve better circularity still many aspects have to change starting with the initial design, to establishing industry-wide clothing collecting infrastructure, local and international regulations governing recycling factories and collectors, innovation and increase of fiber-to-fiber chemical recycling and shifting to renewable energy in its production. The role of consumers is also critical here, they need to be educated on specific material recycling and provided an easy accessible infrastructure.
so can fashion ever be plastic free?
The answer is “no”. But can we collectively as the industry, governments, communities and consumers use less “plastic” in fashion and make it cleaner, more sustainable and eventually circular? I truly hope that we can! We already have some good tools, technologies and practices in place to start and further technological progress and innovations will certainly help us get there.