Plastic pollution in our oceans has become the hot topic in sustainability circles, and the textile industry is just beginning to realize that we own a portion of the blame. The stats are mind-boggling. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, off the coast of California, is estimated to be a 700,000 sq. kilometer mass. But while natural materials decompose, plastics — synthetic materials — break down into smaller and smaller pieces that sink into the ocean depths.
SEAQUAL 4U, a Spanish company created to upcycle ocean waste, says some eight million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean each year. And according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, if nothing changes, by 2020 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean.
It gets worse. Eighty-percent of this waste breaks down into nano-particles which are ingested by aquatic animals, entering the food chain ending with human consumption.
A number of studies in both the U.S. and Europe have found that synthetic textiles, particularly those made from microfibers, shed thousands of microplastic fibers each time they are washed.
Mary Catherine O’Connor, an independent journalist writing for Ensia (a non-profit magazine focusing on environmental challenges and solutions), reports, “Due to the frequency with which apparel is laundered and the increasing quantities of clothing being purchased throughout the world (thanks at least in part to the so-called fast fashion trend) apparel is the microfiber source on which researchers and policy-makers are focusing attention.”
The Great Ocean Clean Up
Cleaning up ocean debris is a complex issue. What happens to the garbage once it’s collected? Finding the right way to clean, recycle, and upcycle masses of smelly plastic is the bigger part of the challenge.
Parley for the Oceans, a think tank dedicated to addressing the threats towards the oceans, takes a three-pronged approach to ocean cleanup. It’s described by the acronym AIR: avoid the use of plastic, intercept plastic waste before it ends up in the ecosystem, and redesign products to fit new industry standards.
Parley has partnered with island countries whose economies depend on clean waters, such as the Maldives, Jamaica and Granada, to clean up local plastic waste.
In 2015 Parley teamed up with Adidas to develop a sneaker created with yarn from recycled ocean plastic and fishing nets. In 2017 Adidas sold a million pairs of sneakers made from ocean waste, and this year the company launched a new Parley X Adidas Outdoor collection.
Adidas’ recycled polyester supplier, Far Eastern New Century, says that the sports brand plans to sell five million pairs of the shoes, each of which recycles polyester from 11 plastic bottles.
Building a Wave from Ocean Trash
Seaqual 4U, founded two years ago, is an alliance of the Ecoalf Foundation (a fashion/lifestyle brand and certified B corporation), textile group Santanderina and spinning mill Antex. Employing some 400 fishing boats to collect trash from the Mediterranean, it upcycles the plastic waste to create the proprietary polymer and fiber brand Seaqual.
Managing director Michel Chtepa describes the company as “a business, not an NGO. We create value and raise awareness by creating beautiful product.”
Seaqual is offered as both filament and staple, which can be blended with natural fibers to create textiles of sustainable origin. Textile companies including Burlington, Santanderina, Sofileta, A Sampaio and Lemar are already producing fabrics from Seaqual.
“Seaqual is the only PET upcycled from ocean waste that is available to any mill,” notes Chtepa. “Our ability to blend opens the door to meet market needs.”
Seaqual has opened negotiations with more than 150 textile companies, key mills, and brands over the last ten months, according to Chtepa. The company plans to expand its cleanup operations to other countries, and expects to add an Asian partner in 2019. Future goals include upcycling polypropylene and nylon trash into high quality textiles.
“Seaqual’s final objective is to close the loop. The momentum is growing fast. It’s a big wave,” he concludes.
An Ounce of Prevention
Even with the best of intentions, it will take decades to clean plastic out of the oceans; and capturing microfiber pollution is even more difficult.
It could be as simple as a product called the Guppyfriend washing bag, developed by a group of German environmentalists, which traps the microfibers released by synthetic fabrics during the wash cycle. Or, home laundry machines could be fitted with filters that would do the job.
Textile manufacturers could mitigate fiber shedding by using tighter constructions and yarns with a firmer twist. Prewashing garments (with a filter) during the manufacturing process would also reduce fiber shedding in home laundry.
TextileMission, a three-year joint project including Vaude, Adidas, Polartec, and WWF Germany, is working towards the development of new fabrics and technologies that will reduce microfiber pollution.
Making it Biodegradable
Ultimately, replacing current plastics with biodegradable polymers could go a long way toward checking the growth of plastic pollution.
San Francisco start-up Mango Materials has received several accolades for their biodegradable biopolymer that is said to be economically competitive with petroleum-based polymers. Their microbial process converts naturally-occurring methane gas emissions to poly-hydroxyalkanoate (PHA), which can be used to make synthetic textiles and other plastic products.
The product will break down in aerobic and anaerobic conditions such as a wastewater treatment plant or landfill, where it converts back to methane.
Another California start-up, Intrinsic Textiles Group, has developed CiCLO, an additive that can be applied to textiles and apparel during manufacturing which will hasten the biodegradation of synthetic fibers in a wastewater treatment plant or marine environment. Intrinsic and spinner Parkdale Mills recently joined forces to form Intrinsic Advanced Materials and bring CiCLO to market.
Ultimately, the answer to plastic pollution in our oceans may lie in a combination of the above approaches—or in a radical change in the way we make, consume, and dispose of synthetic products.