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Are Biodegradable Fibers Part of the Circular Economy?

Published on Dec 10, 2021

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By Jean Hegedus, Sustainability Director, The LYCRA Company

As one of the largest industries in the world, the textile and apparel industry has a substantial impact on the environment. Studies show that the current system of manufacturing and distribution operates almost entirely on a linear model. And most clothing is used for only short periods before finding its way into landfills or being incinerated.

The LYCRA Company is hosting a series of global panel discussions with apparel industry experts on critical sustainability issues facing the sector. In the prior two discussions, the panelists first examined the steps and hurdles to attaining the Paris Climate Agreement’s goals, and then weighed in on using mechanical versus chemical methods to create recycled fibers. For the third topic, 23 panelists discussed the role of biodegradable fibers and the opportunities and challenges they pose to achieving circularity in the industry.

Biodegradable fibers have been suggested as one solution to addressing waste. However, there is a debate about whether biodegradable textiles should be included as part of the circular economy. One of the key ideas that emerged from the panel:  While biodegradable fibers may help reduce the persistence of textiles in the environment, they are not considered to be truly circular because once disposed of, the product "leaves the loop.” For biodegradable fibers/textiles to be a meaningful solution, many challenges must be overcome, and their promotion may have unintended environmental consequences.

 

Biodegradable fibers – circular or not?

Several panelists indicated that biodegradable fibers are not part of the circular economy because they are not used again to produce new products. Instead, they biodegrade into natural elements and then leave the “loop.”

According to sustainability consultant Les Jacques, biodegradable fibers do not address the critical issue of reducing the need for more virgin materials. “Whether fibers are natural or synthetic, once a consumer is finished with a garment made of biodegradable fibers, to replace it, you then need to extract more raw materials. This does not retain the value as much as recycled materials could achieve.”

Debo Adeniyi, CEO and chief sustainability/ESG officer at The Centre for Global Solutions and Sustainable Development (CENGSSUD), echoed that thought, saying: “A circular economy should retain the value of products and materials in the economy as much as possible.”

 

Biodegradable – where and when?

In looking at biodegradable fibers, it’s important to consider under what conditions a fiber will biodegrade (in a landfill, ocean, etc.) and in what timeframe. In the U.S., for example, to be promoted as biodegradable, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) mandates that garments must completely degrade within a year via the most prevalent disposal method. According to Dawn Houghton, innovation consultant, “Manufacturers often imply biodegradable items will have less environmental impact. However, if disposed of in a landfill, they are unlikely to degrade any faster than their non-biodegradable alternatives.”

Houghton also indicated that she has spoken with many consumers about biodegradability across a range of product categories. “Unfortunately, the majority of consumers do not know what biodegradable means. For example, one of the common misconceptions is that if something is biodegradable, it must disappear when it is discarded into the solid waste stream.”

 

Biodegradability in the ocean

In an ocean, biodegradation can take decades, even centuries, to occur, as ocean temperatures and the presence of microbes are much lower than what is typically found in landfills or other waste disposal methods.  Jacques posits that the prevention of fibers leaking into the environment in the first place should be the priority.

“In their ‘What a Waste’ report, the United Nations stated that biodegradability of any type of waste should not be seen as a solution to disposal, as this could well have a negative effect and encourage littering. For example, consumers often thinking they can throw anything away anywhere, as it will just ‘biodegrade.’”

 

Final thoughts

Reducing the bio-persistence of fibers is likely a more realistic goal than creating fibers that can meet the FTC definition and timelines required to be called biodegradable. While not truly circular, perhaps these fibers can play a role in the short term, as the industry moves towards more transformative solutions.

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