‘There is no AWAY’ – How do we minimize plastic waste in the environment?


iStock/Bulat Silvia
iStock/Bulat Silvia

There are many avenues for such plastics arriving in the broader environment, and while there are regulatory guidelines in the U.S. relating to effluent of organic and synthetic fibers from manufacturing processes, there are no regulations for the laundering of fibers in finished products, which is a significant source of plastic-related waste discharged into our waterways.

The source of the phrase “There is no AWAY” is the NGO Better Alternatives Now (BAN): “Plastic – a material invented to last forever – can no longer be used to make products intended to be thrown away.  There is no AWAY.” As the director of education and technical affairs at INDA, Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, part of my mission is to look at issues affecting our members and determine what we can do. One of the big issues we are examining now is plastics in the environment with an emphasis on single use.

We in the nonwovens business use many materials that are considered to be “plastics,” even if the end-product does not make that fact readily apparent, such as in single-use disposable wipes and absorbent hygiene products, two market sectors among the largest users of nonwoven materials by weight and by square meter. As an industry, we need to understand the issue and its many components and lay out some direction for material science development and embracement of the “Circular Economy” approach.

Fibers, particularity microfibers, can be contributory to pollution in marine environment. These fibers can be generated in production and from post production activities. There are many avenues for such plastics arriving in the broader environment, and while there are regulatory guidelines in the U.S. relating to effluent of organic and synthetic fibers from manufacturing processes, there are no regulations for the laundering of fibers in finished products, which is a significant source of plastic-related waste discharged into our waterways.

Ultimately, understanding the issue of plastics in the environment means clarifying the language and concepts commonly used. Without precise language and definitions, we run the risk of banning products that aren’t necessarily contributing to the broader problem, while allowing other products that are detrimental to the goal of minimizing plastics in the environment.

For example, terms in need of a common understanding and definition include Biodegradable, Sustainable, Man-Made, and Synthetic. What does it mean to have a biodegradable fiber that at the end of its life is deposited into a landfill that does not allow it to biodegrade as it would if it were sent to an industrial composting facility? The infrastructure is not fully developed to take advantage of new materials science innovation … So is the material the problem, or is infrastructure the problem?

We need to understand what really needs to happen to accomplish the end goal of minimizing plastic waste in the environment, as regulation without this level of foundational understanding runs the risk of being more superficial than truly impactful.

As I see it, some of the most important questions the fiber industry faces in responding appropriately and effectively to help reduce the amount of plastics in the environment include:

  • Are we trying to reduce the usage of fossil fuels?
  • Are we trying to lower the volume of material going to landfills?
  • Are we trying to reduce the persistence of disposed articles in their end-of-life environment?
  • Are we trying to reduce the presence of plastic debris in the seas?  Litter on beaches?

There is the potential to conflate each of these separate “problems” into a single solution, such as “banning all plastics,” but each problem requires a unique solution.  So we need to be clear on the definition of the problems/issues our industry can positively influence and advocate for the time needed to make progress.

Our industry can, should and will do better through recycling advancements, broader recovery, and reuse of materials in the waste stream, and in using material science to reduce our reliance on exclusively petro-based plastic materials.  What is really needed is time to transition.

Material science is advancing rapidly in the development of techniques to extract plastic materials in a circular manner through molecular separation processes, therefore reducing the reliance on new petroleum-based raw materials.  Meanwhile, new polymers and polymer blends from natural sources and/or renewable sources (“bio-based”) are under development with promising results.  Products blending natural and petro-based polymers are emerging, representing step-wise progress.

So we have a lot to discuss regarding a consistent, coherent industry messaging strategy on plastic waste. Here are some key principles we should consider as representing our common interests at this time in the greater nonwoven/engineered materials industry:

We agree that there is a problem with too much “plastic” in our waste environment and in places waste should not be.

Our industry can, should and will do better through recycling advancements, broader recovery, and reuse of materials in the waste stream, and in using material science to reduce our reliance on exclusively petro-based plastic materials.  We need time to transition.

There are many benefits associated with plastic materials in products consumers depend on, like, keeping our air, water, food and medicines clean and in providing convenience and efficacy in personal hygiene.

There is also a lot of confusing misinformation about “plastics” and potential for unintended consequences regarding this multi-faceted issue.

Let’s better define the problems we really want to address, a realistic timeframe for progress, and what the appropriate balance is between the benefits provided by such materials and the environmental costs of their use and disposal.

Previous Swiss textile machinery companies look to growth in carbon and glass fiber composites
Next 4 key takeaways from Techtextil and Texprocess 2019