How should we handle the plastics in the environment problem?

Photo: iStock/Stefan Lenz

Environmental footprints are a metric for the measurement of human demand on natural capital. This measurement attempts to consider multiple impacts of an activity rather than focusing on a single one.

In the textile industry the environmental footprint considers the impacts of carbon, water, land and air from textile production. The textile industry is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions due to its production technologies and transportation. In fact, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation put global textile industry emissions at 1.2 billion tons of CO2 equivalent per year, close to the level of emissions from the automobile industry. The end of the life is also problematic because there is no sound and/or widespread concept for recycling, reuse and/or biodegradation of the material outcomes from textiles.

Regulatory watch

As a result of the environmental footprint(s) of the textile industry, there are many directives and regulations that are being implemented and/or discussed globally that will have an effect on fiber-based materials moving forward. One of the biggest is the European Union’s Single-Use Plastics Directive. This directive is focused on marine litter, primarily, based on analysis of litter found on beaches.

Fishing gear and wet wipes are fiber-centric materials listed as top-10 single-use plastic items that were found to litter beaches in Europe. Fishing gear accounts for approximately one-third of all litter, while wet wipes are in the low single digits. Given their status in the top 10, both of these categories will be subjected to extended producer responsibilities (EPR) under the EU directive, whereby the manufacturers will be financially accountable for the cleanup and raising public awareness on the impacts of litter associated with their products.

However, it is important to note, initiatives like the Single-Use Plastics Directive and others around the world have not yet settled on a standard definition of plastic. It would seem that everyone could agree on what a “plastic” is, but, unfortunately, this is not the case. And this leaves the textile industry in an unfortunate place, trying to determine which materials may be subject to regulatory implications, and which will be acceptable.

For example, some have suggested that regenerated cellulosic fibers, such as lyocell and viscose, should be classified as plastics. And while the current iteration of the EU directive has not classified them as such, the discussion of how cellulosic fibers could be considered plastics shows just how ambiguous the term “plastic” can be.

While the aforementioned regulatory initiatives seek to protect the environment, their ridged frameworks and loose definitions may pose unintended consequences that limit the development and use of high-performance materials.

New regulations in Canada are also focused on microplastics and microplastic pollution and have identified textiles as a major source of microfiber pollution, while California’s Break Free From Plastics Act is another regulation the industry will need to be mindful of moving forward.

The COVID factor

While the aforementioned regulatory initiatives seek to protect the environment, their ridged frameworks and loose definitions may pose unintended consequences that limit the development and use of high-performance materials. As an example, Canada’s broad sweeping regulations suggest classifying all plastics as toxic. Such a classification would impact a wide range of materials today, many of which serve to bridge the gap between synthetic and natural fibers.

Consider what a broad sweeping ban on plastics would mean for the COVID-19 response. Much of the needed PPE items (gowns, facemasks, respirators, etc.) are made of plastic-based fibers, which provide the necessary performance to protect healthcare workers and the public at large from the virus. Also, the antimicrobial wipes that have been in high demand during the pandemic are, in some cases, made of plastic-based fibers that enable the wipes to absorb and effectively distribute antimicrobial solution onto surfaces.

Prior to the pandemic, there was an outcry to ban all single-use plastic products. The unintended consequence of such a ban would have been no N95 facemasks or surgical gowns.

In some cases, the world needs single-use plastics … what we don’t need is single-use plastic waste. What is missing is the infrastructure, technologies and processes, and public awareness to minimizing single-use plastic waste on a widespread scale.

Awareness, in particular, is key. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, progress was being made thanks to multiple education campaigns about what should and should not be flushed down the toilet. During the pandemic, however, a significant uptick of non-flushable items have made their way into the wastewater system.

People around the world are using disinfectant wet wipes, as well as paper towels, at record numbers and flushing both. The fibers in these products were never designed to dissolve in water easily. Facemasks are another product that is making its way down the toilet and into the environment as litter. This isn’t necessarily a technology or materials issue, it’s a public awareness issue … The public needs to understand the impacts of improper disposal of the products they use.

Obviously, the elimination of plastic-based (or other potentially harmful) environmental pollutants is desirable. However, what we have seen in the early stages of the COVID pandemic is a call to action, as there are no fiber alternatives that perform at such high levels in PPE items such as N95 facemasks that are not “plastic.”

COVID-19 presents an opportunity to open a dialogue with regulators to assure that they understand that some single-use products are needed and necessary. Banning single-use products could have had broad unintended consequences which would have made the pandemic even more deadly than it has already been. A call to action for more sustainable fibers and more acceptable end of life for current fibers has been exposed.

The solution

As an industry I believe we can develop new fibers and processes that will act in a more “circular” fashion. Bans on materials and technologies are restrictive. Circular design is a restorative and regenerative approach to business. There is no silver bullet to solving the world’s environmental challenges, however, there are some technologies that are changing the narrative. I’ll mention two here.

Eastman chemical has launched a circular recycling technology the utilizes polyester fiber waste which cannot be recycled by current mechanical methods and, as a result, often ends up in landfills and waterways. Using the process of methanolysis, Eastman’s advanced circular recycling technology breaks down polyester-based products into their polymer building blocks. These building blocks can then be reintroduced to the production of new polyester-based polymers, delivering a true circular solution.

Newlight Inc. utilizes greenhouse gasses to create biodegradable, biocompatible fibers. When it naturally degrades into a greenhouse gas, fiber can be reformed again creating a regenerative cycling loop.

Banning “plastics” would not encourage out-of-the-box thinking similar to these two examples. So perhaps the solution is not to ban plastics, but to develop technologies that can help plastic-based fibers be employed in a more circular fashion. Would a circular plastic-based product provide a more advantageous environmental footprint than a product based on natural fibers that requires a lot of energy and resources to produce? Maybe, maybe not, but if we have broad regulations with loose definitions, we may never know the answer to such questions.