Why synthetics must be part of the sustainability movement
By Jackie Mallon
Feb 4, 2020
Céleste Lilore, Director of Industry Engagement for Textile Exchange, a non-profit organization focused on accelerating sustainability in the Textile Value Chain, made the case for synthetics at the recent Texworld event. To companies looking to make improvements in this volatile and quickly evolving environment, Lilore recommends what she calls a “portfolio approach” which emphasizes the benefits of biosynthetics and recycled plastics as resources.
What are biosynthetics?
A brief historical overview: biosynthetics were used in packaging as early as the 1800s. Chemist Alexander Parks displayed the first manmade plastic in London in 1862, while Henry Ford in 1942 unveiled an automobile prototype made with plastic panels made from hemp and Bakelite. In textiles, biosynthetics might be classified as new but from the 1800s to 1940s, when oil was scarce, Arkema made a lipid-based nylon called Ritsan which is still on the market today.
Biosynthetics are comprised of polymers in a chemical reaction in which two or more molecules combine to make larger structures. Nylon, polyester, and Teflon are examples of synthetic polymers, while examples of natural ones are DNA, wool, and silk. One of the virtues of the polymerization process is that it uses drop-in methods which means it uses existing machinery, then it is knit or woven, and manufactured into garments. End-of-life options are landfill, incineration, or it returns back to the chemical stage with post-consumer recycling. Not all biosynthetics are biodegradable, but PLA (Polylactic acid) and PAII (Polyamide) are two that are.
Why are biosynthetics important?
The global demand for biosynthetics is expected to double by 2050. As they originate from renewable resources, they offer an opportunity to shift away from depleting the earth and our dependence on fossil fuel, and encourage us to use smart technology and material resources in a more responsible way. According to the University of Oxford we have 50 years of remaining oil, while according to the European Commission bio-based products represent 73 billion dollars in annual revenue and the demand is to increase by 22% this year alone. Perhaps, most importantly, biosynthetics use carbon dioxide in their growing phase thereby benefiting the environment as CO2 accounts for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions. They need sunlight which is both abundant and free, and provide opportunity for the mitigation of climate change and regulating the earth’s temperature.
What are biosynthetics derived from?
Starches and sugars: corn, cane sugar, sugar beets, wheat and sorghum.
Lipids and oils: Castor oil, soybean oil, palm oil or cooking oil.
Bio mass or waste: Food, farming or forest which contain valuable cellulose from agricultural waste in the form of trees and grasses.
They are separated into three categories: 1st Generation refers to crop-based feedstocks which are commercially available at scale. 2nd Generation is waste-based from agriculture and forestry and is in pilot phase. 3rd Generation are non-food based sources such as algae or bacteria which are grown specifically as bio resources, still at the concept and pilot stage.
Biosynthetics currently available are PET (Polyester), PLA (Polylactic acid), PTT, PAII (Polyamide), and companies which are investing in this space include Dupont, Arkema, Torey, Ingeo, Fulgar, Natural Fiber Welding.
Recent successes of biosynthetics have been highly publicized: 2015’s groundbreaking Adidas sneaker of spider silk, or recently the first bio-based fossil-free jacket by Tierra Outerwear has hit the market. EVO yarns from Fulgar have been made into athleisure and cycling stockings, and Stella McCartney’s partnership with Bolt Threads resulted in a dress of synthetic spider silk from the fermentation of yeast, sugar and water.
Complications of Polyester
In 2002 polyester overtook cotton to become the most widely used fiber, and currently it occupies more than 50 percent of market share with an estimated annual production of 53 million metric tons. An example of virgin synthetics this polymer is made from fossil fuel, so derived from oil, and classified as non-renewable. Environmentally challenging in its processes, there have also been major accidents around the extraction and transportation of oil, and microfiber shedding into our rivers, oceans, and fish life is a highly problematic result of washing polyester garments. Toxicity research is ongoing and innovation is of interest. Scientists in Japan claim to have found a way to separate synthetic textile microfibers and other micro plastics using sound-waves, which would open up the possibility of retrofitting our washing machines and laundries. Using cooler temperature when washing has been discovered to drastically reduce the shedding but, still, these microfibers persist in the environment getting smaller and continuing to shed even in landfills for hundreds of years. Incineration is directly associated to carbon and air emissions and contributes to climate urgency.
Recycled pre- or post-consumer feedstocks can radically reduce the use of crude oil, and an example of one which has reached scale is the recycling of plastic water bottles. Recycled polyester uses 30-50 percent less energy to produce than its conventional counterpart, and while in 2017 the market share of recycled polyester grew to 14 percent up from 8 percent in 2007, consensus is that we need to move faster.
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.
Images: Textile Exchange