April 21, 2024

Illustration of clothes hanger spewing out leaves, a purse-shaped apple and a blouse with mushrooms growing from the straps

The spotlight

If you’ve read any climate-related news in the past few years, you’re probably familiar with the scourge of microplastics. These little pieces of plastic end up clogged oceans. They are appearing at alarming rates bottled water, food, clouds — and in the human body. A study published just last month in the journal Toxicological Sciences tested 62 placentas, and found microplastics in varying concentrations in each. While their long-term impact on human health still largely unknownanother study published earlier this month found microplastics in arteries with increased risk of heart attacks and stroke.

Much attention has been focused on phasing out single use plastic, which creates visible plastic pollution and releases microplastics when they break down. But there is increasing recognition that plastics and microplastics are hidden in a staggering number of products we depend on – including, notably, our clothing.

The pieces of plastic shed from synthetic textiles have their own term: microfibers. Elastics of polyester, nylon, elastane and other synthetic materials fall off our clothes as we wear, store and wash them. Laundry alone can be responsible about a third of the microplastics released into the ocean each year – and some innovations and regulations have emerged reduce the transfer of microplastics from our washing machines to our water systems. But another set of innovators is imagining something bigger: what our clothes might be made of instead.

The problem, of course, is that plastic is so terribly functional. Synthetic fibers are typically cheaper to manufacture than organic materials, and they also offer performance benefits, such as stretchability and weather resistance.

“The age of plastic started because it imitated other things, and the functionality was so good that it became its own thing,” fashion designer Uyen Tran told Grist when we interviewed her for our 2023 Grist 50 list. In 2020, Tran founded a company called TomTex to create bio-based materials that can replace synthetics as well as leather and suede. She believes that a wave of new materials is poised to outcompete plastic-based textiles. “I think biomaterials are about to become their own thing as well. Just give us a few more years, and you’ll see.”

In this newsletter, we collect a handful of the materials – from apple waste to artificial spider silk – already on the market, offering a glimpse of a plastic-free future for our textiles.

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Shrimp Shells: TômTex’s bio-fabrics are made from the waste of mushrooms and shrimp shells. The company sources the latter in part from the shrimp industry in Tran’s native Vietnam, which creates hundreds of tons of shellfish waste annually. And, Tran noted in her Grist 50 profile, she eventually hopes to build a network of regional production facilities around the world, sourcing materials from waste streams in different regions. The company launched its fully biodegradable shell-based material at New York Fashion Week in 2022, in collaboration with designer Peter Do. His mushroom-based fabric was seen on runways in both London and Paris fashion weeks in 2023. Read more

Apple puree: Another example of a company harnessing waste streams as raw materials for textiles is Allégorie, a New York-based accessories company that makes bags and purses from apple waste – the pulp left over from juice – as well as cactus, mangoes and pineapple leaves. Co-founder Heather Jiang told Marie Claire that some of the products even retain a pleasant, fruity scent.

Allégorie’s fruit-based products are intended to provide a better vegan leather, as the majority of faux leather products currently on the market are made from plastics such as polyurethane and vinyl. The company also sees the reduction of food waste as part of its mission. Read more

Old cotton: A perhaps less surprising waste stream is used clothing itself. Early last year, a Swedish company called Renewcell opened the world’s first commercial-scale textile recycling facility, reports the BBC. The company shreds old cotton clothing (with up to 5 percent non-cotton content), such as shirts and jeans, and then chemically processes it to separate the fibers, resulting in a simple organic compound called cellulose. It can then be spun into new viscous material.

The big sell here is the reduction of textile waste; more than 100 billion items of clothing are produced each year, and only 1 percent end up getting new clothes. But the company is using that existing inventory instead of plastic to make new clothes — and clothes that, in turn, won’t create more microplastics. The mill has contracts with a number of suppliers, including Swedish fashion giant H&M. Read more

Improved cotton: A company called Natural Fiber Welding is working to improve natural materials like cotton to provide some of the same benefits that synthetic fabrics provide. Wired reports on how the process, known as (you guessed it!) “fiber welding,” uses liquid salts to partially break down the fibers and then fuse them together, creating longer and stronger wires that have some of the coveted properties of synthetic fabrics can mimic , such as strength and durability, particularly relevant for athletic and outdoor clothing. The company announced a partnership with Patagonia in 2021. Read more

Lab-grown spider silk: A Japanese company called Spiber is pioneering what it calls “brewing protein” fibers — a way to produce desired natural substances in a lab. As The Japan Times reports, it began efforts in 2007 to design spider silk, which has long been admired for its strength, durability and lightness. (Hence the name, which combines “spider” and “fiber.”) The company’s first product, made from a silk protein synthesized by bacteria, enhanced with a piece of spider DNA, was introduced by The North Face in 2015. A prototype coat used called the Maan Parka.

But the company faced a challenge in creating a product that wouldn’t shrink when wet, like spider webs do. Today, using lessons from his initial engineering process, Spiber produces a brewed protein material that does not replicate any specific natural substance. The new material is now being used by sportswear company Goldwin (the distributor of The North Face in Japan), which hopes to use 10 percent of its new products brewed protein by 2030. Read more

– Claire Elise Thompson

More exposure

A parting shot

Another increasingly common bio-based textile is lyocell. The semi-synthetic fiber, also sometimes known by the brand name Tencel, is known for its softness and its relative sustainability. It is made by chemically dissolving wood pulp (usually fast-growing eucalyptus), pushing the mixture through a showerhead-like device called a spinneret, and then spinning the fibers into a yarn. In this photo from The Fashion Awards 2023 in London, Nicole Scherzinger (of Pussycat Dolls fame) wears a custom Tencel dress by Patrick McDowell, a luxury designer who use only sustainable and recycled materials.

Nicole Scherzinger on a red carpet in a floor-length pale green gown with a sweeping train

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