Conscious consumers now look for sustainable synthetic fabrics as the more ethical and responsible choice for clothing, especially in activewear and sports apparel.
Recycled plastics including recycled polyester and nylon are primary choices when it comes to eco-friendly and technical clothing. But these recycled fabrics aren't as environmentally friendly as they seem.
Sustainable alternatives to recycled plastics are lyocell and biobased plastics. They provide greener clothes, bio-based, and bio-degradable, that don't contribute to plastic waste and microfiber pollution.
The fashion industry is the second-largest polluter globally. It's responsible for huge textile waste, pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, water, and energy consumption.
For consumers, it's time to pay more attention to what our clothes are made of. And fashion brands must take massive action to reduce their environmental impact.
What's wrong with recycled plastics
Recycling textile waste is a step in the right direction. But it's not nearly enough to limit the global plastic waste crisis and microfiber pollution of our land and ocean.
Recycled polyester is usually made from PET plastic bottles or industrial polyester waste. Recycled nylon is manufactured from post-industrial wastes, such as fabric scraps, carpet flooring, fishing nets, and industrial plastics.
What about clothes made from plastic materials? Less than 1% of all textile waste is recycled into new clothes, as reported by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Plastic fabrics are often made from blends of various materials such as elastane or spandex, nylon, and polyester, which makes recycling difficult, not profitable, even impossible in some cases.
And not all recycling is environmentally friendly. Recycling plastic consumes lots of chemicals, energy, and water. The better way to treat textile waste is upcycling clothing.
Read up my article on why upcycling clothing is better than recycling to learn more about its advantages.
Even recycled synthetic fabrics contribute to plastic pollution. They aren't biodegradable and take up to thousands of years to decompose. Most of them aren't infinitely recyclable either.
Fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world. Every year, tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean. Even washing recycled plastic clothes at home releases microfibers into waterways that threaten marine life, and human health.
It's time to consider sustainable alternatives to recycled plastics such as lyocell and biobased plastics.
Lyocell eco-friendly rayon
Lyocell is a man-made cellulosic fiber, a form of rayon fabric, which is considered semi-synthetic. Other man-made cellulosic fibers include viscose-rayon, acetate, modal, and cupro.
Lyocell is arguably one of the most eco-friendly cellulosic fibers. It's made from cellulose-based resources, usually wood, but also bamboo, soy, seaweed, or coconut.
The annual production of man-made cellulosic fibers is 6.7 million tons, according to Lenzing's report. It represents 6.2% of the total fiber production volume.
Lyocell is the third most used man-made cellulosic fiber after viscose and acetate. Turning wood into fibers for clothing is very water and chemical-intensive. But with the help of closed-loop manufacturing processes, almost all chemicals and wastewater can be recovered.
Some notable Lyocell brands aiming to reduce the environmental impact of clothes are:
- Tencel by Lenzing, made from sustainable forest wood
- Seacell by Smartfiber, made from sustainable dried seaweed
Biobased plastics from plants
Also known as biopolymers, bioplastics, or bio-synthetics, biobased plastics are manufactured fibers made from biological sources such as sugarcane, seaweed, starch, plant oils, or agricultural wastes.
They are renewable alternatives to fossil-based synthetic fibers such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic. They are mostly biodegradable and help lower the carbon and water footprint of clothes.
As the future availability and stability of oil deteriorate, biobased plastics are bound to become more popular.
However, a lot of innovation, technology advancements, and infrastructure developments are still required to make the whole plastic industry entirely biobased, circular, and regenerative.
Luckily, the interest in bio-synthetics is growing among conscious consumers and key players in the apparel industry. With a few more investments in biobased plastics, fashion can become sustainable.
A few innovative companies making sustainable fibers from renewable plant-based materials are:
- Carnegie making biobased Xorel from sugarcane
- Fulgar making hi-tech yarn Evo from castor bean and oil
- Mango Materials making bio-polyester YOPP PHA from bacteria
- GREY Fashion making innovative Vitadylan from algae
About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.