Recycled plastic will not save the planet

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I’m sorry to finish you off, but yes, even your recycled plastic buffer is harming the planet. In recent years, recycled plastic has been popping up everywhere from sneakers to patio furniture to kitchen ware and clothing as companies learned to reuse plastic from discarded water bottles. And it’s true that recycled plastic is better than new, petroleum-based plastic. But here’s the thing: every time you wash or wear this puffer fish, microscopic plastic particles are released into the water stream that poison the fish – and when you eventually throw it away, it becomes non-biodegradable.

Pangaia, a two year old fashion brand focused on material innovation, is committed to finding an alternative to recycled plastic. For decades, fashion brands have relied on plastic because it is cheap and easy to manufacture. But they are increasingly realizing that they are drowning the world in plastic: it clogs our landfills and our oceans with one truckload per minute.

Pangaia today announced a partnership with tech startup Kintra, who invented a fabric that mimics the stretch, durability, and moisture-wicking properties of synthetics, but is made from renewable materials and can be composted. So in theory, when you’re done with your parka, you can put your parka in your compost bin and then use it to fertilize your flowers. The technology is still emerging and it’s unclear exactly how the fabric will behave, but it’s an encouraging sign that engineering solutions could bridge the gap between the convenience of plastic and the environmental benefits of a biodegradable material.

[Photo: Pangaia]

What’s the problem with recycled plastic?

Consumer goods have a serious problem with plastic. When the material first became widespread in the 1950s, designers saw it as a cheap, magical substance that could turn into anything they wanted. Companies across the spectrum – from furniture makers to toy brands to food packaging manufacturers – have relied heavily on it since then.

The fashion industry is one of the largest consumers of plastic. Nylon was first developed in the 1930s, but nearly a century later, 60% of the 100 billion pieces of clothing the industry produces annually are made from synthetic plastic fibers such as nylon, polyester and spandex.

These materials are bad for the planet for many reasons. They are largely made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource the extraction of which is harmful to both people and the planet. They are also not biodegradable. In the 1970s, scientists discovered that synthetic fibers also release tiny particles into the environment each time they are worn, and even more so when they are washed. Researchers at the University of California Santa Barbara found that synthetic fleece jackets release 1.7 grams of microfiber with each wash, and 40% of that end up in rivers, lakes, and oceans, where they ultimately poison marine animals and humans.

In recent years, brands have tried to address the plastic problem by replacing new plastic with recycled plastic. Adidas uses plastic fished from the ocean to make shoes and sportswear. Reformation and Everlane began using recycled plastic from old fishing nets and water bottles in bathing suits and clothing, respectively. Pangaia uses recycled plastic in its new FLWRDWN buffer collection. These efforts represent an improvement over the status quo as they have a smaller carbon footprint and are not dependent on petroleum. But recycled plastics are not a panacea. You are still losing microfiber and will likely end up in a landfill.

Jacqueline Savitz, chief policy officer for the marine conservation group Oceana, fears the boom in recycled clothing could actually have a negative impact on the planet because it makes consumers feel like they can use plastic with devotion. “People can feel good about using a plastic bottle because it would somehow turn into a fleece,” she says. The truth, she says, 91% of plastic isn’t recycled, and a lot of what we throw in our roadside trash cans ultimately isn’t recycled because it’s contaminated with food or coated with plastic. “The solution is to get away from plastic altogether. It’s really doable: Society survived quite well without plastic until the 1950s. “

According to Savitz, it is up to companies to turn away from plastic-based materials. Consumers can’t really drive this change because they don’t currently have much choice in what to buy. “The consumer has very limited options,” she says. “It’s really up to the consumer goods companies to offer us alternatives so that we can opt for the plastic-free option.”

A plastic-free synthetic

That is exactly what Pangaia is trying to do. Dr. Amanda Parkes, the company’s chief innovation officer, received her PhD from MIT’s Media Lab and has been working for years to find an alternative to plastic-based fibers. What attracted her about Kintra’s material is that it doesn’t try to recreate the molecular structure of plastic, which makes it non-biodegradable. Instead, the company is developing a new compostable material that happens to have properties similar to plastic.

Other companies have found ways to make plastic polymers from plants rather than oil. Allbirds, for example, began making the foam of its shoes out of sugar. The flip-flop brand Tidal makes sandals from castor seeds. But even though the raw materials for this plastic are renewable, the end result is not biodegradable. Billy McCall, CEO of Kintra, says it does something very different from these other companies. “It’s not plastic,” says McCall. “It has its own atmosphere and qualities. When you touch it, it feels much softer than most plastics. “

[Photo: Pangaia]

Kintra’s fabrics are designed to mimic the properties of nylon, polyester and spandex that make them so useful in the fashion industry. These materials are stretchy and therefore ideal for leggings, skinny jeans and sweats that dominate the modern wardrobe, as well as moisture-wicking for outerwear and activewear. But the genius thing about these synthetics is that they can transform into almost any shape, from silky nightgowns to soft T-shirts to thick sweaters. McCall says the Kintra fabric will work similarly. “You can’t change cotton to get a different performance,” says McCall. “But as with plastics, you can change the structure of this fiber to make it perform differently in different constructions.”

At the moment, Kintra is using sugar as the raw material for the fabric, but the company is exploring the possibility of using other inputs, including plant waste. Thanks to its chemical structure, the material is compostable. That means that when exposed to bacteria and moisture, it breaks down into its natural elements within three months to give water, carbon dioxide and the sugar compounds. (The same thing would happen if you put organic material like cotton or cashmere in a compost bin.)

At the moment, Kintra’s material is going to break down in an industrial composting facility, but the company is currently working on making it compostable in a standard home compost bin. This also means that if pieces of the fabric fall off and get into waterways, they simply break down into their natural components. Parkes says that one advantage of having a compostable material is that Pangaia can mix it with other biodegradable materials like cotton and knows that the entire garment will eventually degrade at the end of its life.

As Savitz points out, the sustainability of the Kintra fabric depends on how well it composts in a home compost bin or in a landfill. She points out that there are now many so-called biodegradable plastics on the market, but that they require certain conditions for decomposition, including a high temperature and a certain humidity. “If the consumer can’t really compost it, it has the same problems as regular plastic,” she says.

Bring plastic out of fashion

McCall admits that this technology is still in its infancy and that there are many unanswered questions about the exact performance of the tissue. However, Parkes believes that it is critical for brands like Pangaia to invest in emerging sustainable technologies as early as possible to help them grow quickly.

Over the past two years, Pangaia has incorporated various new technologies into its garments, from filling buffers with a down alternative made from natural wildflowers, to using peppermint oil as a natural antimicrobial treatment, to using fibers made from algae. “It’s a win-win relationship because we can invest in startups that make this technology, and they in turn can make fabrics that meet our needs,” says Parkes.

Parkes is already planning to incorporate the Kintra fabric into upcoming products. The first step on the agenda is to swap the recycled plastic in all of its FLWRDWN outerwear for this new material that will be compostable in an industrial facility. In the future, however, Pangaia plans to develop a range of products that can highlight the best properties of the Kintra fabric. Parkes says the pipeline is currently under lock and key, but for an idea, imagine products like soft t-shirts that wick away moisture. “This is a completely new material on the market,” she says. “Part of our job is to let the material guide us in the design process.”

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