Synthetic Fibres Part #1

Ask any skier or hiker, or even a city-dwelling dog walker, about their go-to foul-weather clothing, and very likely they’ll refer to a garment fashioned from a textile woven using synthetic fibres. Ever since the American chemist Wallace Carothers invented nylon as a replacement for silk in the 1930s, man-made fibres have become all the rage in the textile industry, for outdoor clothing manufacturers as well as for fashion houses. Consumers quickly embraced the initial waves of nylon and acrylic garments for their relatively low cost and ease of maintenance.

Today, synthetic fabrics have evolved into high-performance materials that are lightweight, warm and quick drying, ranging from Spandex to polyester and polar fleece, used for running tights, Gore-Tex jackets, sweaters and more. When woven in layers they can be made wind and waterproof. New innovations, including fabrics that respond to, for instance, body heat to keep the wearer cool or that include semi-conductors, put synthetic textiles way ahead of what our grandparents could ever have dreamed of only 50 years ago.

But these advancements come at a price. Non-renewable resources are extracted to produce these textiles, which are then fashioned into clothing intended for short-term use. And even though these fabrics are all made of some form of conventional, petroleum-derived plastic, you’d be hard-pressed to find a recycling facility that will accept them. That’s a problem, considering synthetic fabrics can take upwards of 200 years to decompose, forming a near-permanent layer in landfills, or they go up in smoke where incineration is the mode of choice for getting rid of waste. What’s more, the abrasion that occurs in washing machines causes plastic microfibres to shed from synthetic textiles; these microscopic filaments go out with the rinse cycle into lakes and oceans, where studies have shown they have already accumulated in mollusks, fish and mammals, and settled in sediments on lake bottoms.

One way of limiting the use of virgin plastic that goes into the manufacture of synthetic garments is for consumers to buy less of them and by choosing products that are designed to last through years of wear. Another is to look for items that are bluesign-approved, which means the manufacturer meets certain holistic criteria set by the Swiss organization Bluesign, which rates how well a company does creating textiles with a reduced social and environmental impact (Mountain Equipment Co-op sells bluesign-approved garments).

It’s also encouraging to see that clothing manufacturers are starting to take the issues of plastic waste and microfibres in our waterways seriously by rolling out business models that account for the lifecycle of synthetic textiles. Rather than following a linear model for their products, in which the consumer buys, uses and discards them, a slowly growing number of clothing manufacturers are steering toward a circular economy, where they take responsibility for the garments they produce at the end of their life.

So, when your jacket has been worn for so long it’s in tatters, such manufacturers will take it back for recycling. Or they will ensure that the raw material used to sew new jackets contains recycled plastics, meaning less non-renewable fossil fuels are used for manufacturing new synthetic fibres, which should make a dent in the current annual output of 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions from textile production alone (that’s more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined!).

For instance, in a collaboration between Adidas and Parley, ocean plastic waste is used to create sneakers. The Swedish outdoor clothing brand Haglöfs uses recycled materials intended for end-of-life recycling, including a waterproof membrane specifically designed to be easily recycled. The inventor of PrimaLoft, the synthetic, waterproof alternative to down, will be introducing PrimaLoft Bio in 2020, the first fully recycled and biodegradable man-made fibre for textile use. And Polartec, the creator of polar fleece, recently rolled out Polartec Power Air, a synthetic-fibre weave that encapsulated the lofted, heat-trapping fibres within the material’s structure, for a fleece fabric that sheds five times fewer microfibres than a comparable mid-weight fleece.