We talk a lot about food waste, but what about textiles? Did you know that North Americans send 10 million tons of unwanted clothing to landfills every year?
Much of the clothing mass-produced in factories are made with plastic-based acrylic, nylon, or polyester threads, all of which are nonbiodegradable.
It’s no wonder environmental organizations are linking the fashion industry to high energy and water use, greenhouse gas emissions, and water pollution!
According to numbers put together by Waste Reduction Week in Canada:
- The global textile industry uses one trillion kilowatt-hours every year, 10% of the global total carbon impact.
- It takes 2,650 liters of water to make a single cotton t-shirt, the equivalent of 27 bathtubs full of water.
- Dyeing and treating textiles contribute up to 20% of total industrial water pollution.
Brilliant minds with an eye for design and fashion are coming up with ways to reduce the textile industry’s environmental footprint.
Most of us already know about clothing made from hemp, which is sustainable and completely biodegradable. The result is similar to linen in feel and breathability.
But many other innovative materials exist. Think soft bedsheets made from wood pulp, basic tank tops made with seaweed, cozy sweaters woven with the renewable fiber of beech trees, and vegetable cashmere created with soybeans.
The world of natural vegan fabrics is an exciting one. Just ask Theanne Schiros, assistant professor in the math and science department at New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology (F.I.T.).
She tells Scientific American that tomorrow’s fashion could very well be bioengineered, made with living bacteria, algae, yeast, or fungi.
When thrown away, these materials break down into nontoxic substances, thus reducing waste and pollution.
Schiros and her team of students at F.I.T. have created a yarnlike fiber with algae! The material can be dyed with nonchemical pigments like crushed insect shells and knitted into clothing items.
The result is a strong and flexible textile that is also fire-resistant, qualities that are appealing to mass-market production. Growing it doesn’t require any pesticides or big pieces of land, and it biodegrades much faster than even natural cotton.
In 2017, the F.I.T. students even grew a pair of moccasins for babies using a liquid bacteria culture, fungi, and compostable waste.
The bio-leather was created in a shoe-shaped mold, eventually stitched together with fibers pulled from discarded pineapple tops.
SeaCell is another material recently introduced in the fashion world. It’s made by adding brown algae (called Ascophyllum nodossum) to lyocell. The result is a light, breathable fabric with plenty of nutrients from the seaweed that can be absorbed by the skin.
Using kelp for textiles makes sense; it is, after all, one of the fastest-growing organisms – 10 times faster than bamboo! It can be farmed on coastal shorelines around the world and like hemp, cleans toxins out of the environment as it grows.
Some clothing companies have already started using plant-based textiles, but they’re just a small piece of the fashion puzzle right now.
Will there come a day when these eco-friendly fabrics replace the polyesters, acrylics, and cotton? Let’s hope so.