From microscopic fragments to miles-wide piles of trash, plastics in the oceans have been big news. And the textile industry is responding. Many of the innovations and initiatives around reducing ocean pollution were on display at the recent Outdoor Retailer tradeshow in Denver, CO, USA.
AATCC TM212 measures fiber fragment shedding in laundering.
As 4ocean Director of Sales Brenton Schulze said, “every small bit helps.” Since 2016, the AATCC RA100 Global Sustainability committee has been studying the small bits of fiber and plastic released by textile materials, particularly in laundering. AATCC published the first global test method to quantify this phenomenon in 2021. AATCC TM212, Test Method for Fiber Fragment Release During Home Laundering, allows labs around the world to perform consistent, reliable testing for valid comparison or development of textile materials. Perhaps even more importantly, the method provides clear terminology, defining a fiber fragment as “a short piece (typically < 5 × 10-3 m long) of textile fiber, broken away (or separated) from a textile construction.” This is differentiated from the commonly-used term “microfiber.” In the textile industry, a microfiber is “a fiber with linear density less than 1 denier or 1 dtex.”
AATCC TM212 is the product of collaboration among AATCC members as well as stakeholders from various other organizations from all industry sectors and geographic regions. Even with years of work and expert consultation, the method is not perfect. Mario Gisinger of Swisstex Direct notes that AATCC TM212 and similar methods are “too delicate.” The tiny quantities being measured mean every variation or contamination can have a significant impact on the results. All standards are living documents, revised to meet changing needs, technology, and applications. As more data is collected and more labs gain experience with AATCC TM212, the committee expects the method to become more robust.
Hohenstein takes fiber fragment analysis a step further with Dynamic Image Analysis (DIA). The proprietary test distinguishes between cellulosic and non-cellulosic fibers as well as characterizing fiber fragment shape, length, and distribution. The Hohenstein labs also perform a test similar to AATCC TM212 to measure the mass of released fiber fragments.
Reducing the Fragments
Coats has a portfolio of sustainable products, including biodegradable thread.
The work in fiber fragments is not limited to measuring the problem. Several companies are implementing proactive solutions to reduce persistent fragments in the environment.
Coats Eco-B is a recycled polyester thread incorporating an additive from Ciclo to reduce synthetic fiber accumulation in landfills and oceans. The technology creates biodegradable “spots” in the polymer matrix, where naturally-occurring microbes in certain environments can break down the plastics just as they do with natural fibers. Ciclo reports that the treated fibers were 91.5% degraded after 844 days of lab testing in sea water, compared to 4.5% for untreated fibers. Biodegradation was also tested in sludge, soil, and landfill environments.
Other organizations are focused on reducing fragmentation altogether. Five Ten promotes its non-brushed, looped Terrex Fleece as shedding fewer fiber fragments in laundering than traditional fleece fabrics.
Gisinger used AATCC TM212 to better understand how mechanical finishing impacts fiber fragment shedding of Swisstex fabrics. He reports that a sueded sample produced about 20% more fiber fragments than a non-sueded sample of the same fabric. The results are not surprising but provide additional objective data to begin informing the decisions of manufacturers and brands.
The 4ocean bracelet is made from recycled materials and sales support ocean cleanup although this style is not made from ocean-recovered plastic.
Schulze is also looking for textile constructions and production processes that will not add to the ocean pollution 4ocean is working to remove. The company researched GOTS certified cotton for its line of T-shirts to ensure that promoting the brand didn’t contribute to the fiber fragment issue. As it explores polyester apparel products, 4ocean plans to work with AATCC and utilize AATCC TM212 for the same purpose.
Of course, pollution is not limited to fiber fragments and microplastics. Larger pieces can entangle or suffocate marine life.
Got Bag collects and processes ocean plastic to produce its bags and accessories.
Several organizations focus on removing the trash, but the textile industry is also going the next step to put reclaimed plastic to good use.
Got Bag created a vertical operation, paying Indonesian fisherman for the plastics they haul in with their catch and their wives to sort the plastic. About 11% of the material is polyethylene terephthalate (PET, polyester) that can be mechanically recycled and made into new bags or other products. The material that cannot be recycled is incinerated to produce thermal energy.
Matthias Paisdzior, Head of North America for Got Bag, explains that the base fabric and webbing for bags are produced from the recycled ocean plastic. Zippers and buckles are purchased, although the buckles are also recycled PET. He hopes to eventually produce his own buckles by recycling heavier weight plastics like those used for shampoo bottles. Future plans also include expanding the types of bags in the line and entering the luggage category. Paisdzior acknowledges that PET from recycled ocean-impact plastic is more expensive than that from standard bottle recycling, but the company provides additional positive social impact by creating jobs and reducing pollution in a vulnerable region.
Recyclable polyester products are designated with a number “1.” Creative Commons.
Schulze agrees about the cost and the benefit of recycling ocean plastic, but he emphasizes the difference between “ocean bound” and “ocean recovered” material. Ocean bound plastic can come from anywhere within 50 kilometers of a coastline. Schulze says this can even include traditional recycling centers on land, though other organizations exclude managed dump sites from the definition. Ocean recovered plastic is removed directly from the ocean and can be much more challenging to recycle into a quality end product. “It’s super dirty!” Schulze says. Part of the 4ocean process is to get the material as clean as possible, but the polymer may also experience various levels of salt and ultraviolet degradation. Mehdi Ghafghazim, Head of Materials Science & Innovation at 4ocean, is continually working to perfect the extrusion process for these materials.
Like Got Bag, 4ocean depends on hand sorting to identify the materials suitable for recycling. Schulze says some things—like plastic water bottles—are easily recognized. Others still have an embossed symbol indicating a polymer class.
Helly Hansen featured ocean bound plastic at its Outdoor Retailer display.
Got Bag is a consumer product company with ambitions to become “the leading sustainable luggage brand in the world.” 4ocean is an ocean cleanup company producing consumer products to fund operations and raise awareness. While there are plans to expand the product line, the company’s focus is on becoming a feedstock supplier for brands interested in more sustainable sourcing solutions.
Brands are embracing recycled ocean plastic. Helly Hansen is one of those brands, highlighting apparel from ocean bound recycled material in its booth at Outdoor Retailer. The recycled yarn is woven into fabric for jackets, pants, and tops.
Hyosung booth at Outdoor Retailer.
Hyosung produces multiple recycled fabrics, including Mipan Regen Ocean from discarded fishing nets and other ocean bound nylon materials. The company partners with government and independent partners for collection and processing of so-called “ghost nets.” Regen Ocean fabrics are created from recycled ocean bound polyester. At Outdoor Retailer, the Hyosung booth included concept garments and multiple walls promoting the reclamation process.
Schulze is optimistic. He says there is an overall trend of greater consumer awareness of ocean pollution issues. Consumers are requiring more of brands and “voting with their wallets.”