In the 1800s, consumption was the name of a terrible, yet weirdly chic, wasting disease later known as tuberculosis, glamorized in both society and the arts. “I should like to die from consumption,” the romantic poet Byron reportedly said. The novelist George Sand said of her lover, the composer Frédéric Chopin, that he “coughs with infinite grace.”
Ever since, the term consumption has been shorthand for many of our own seductive worst impulses — including the desire to jam our wardrobes full of stuff — along with apparent disregard for the reality of our situation. Once upon a time, consumption generally implied death for a person; today, it has begun to imply death for the planet.
And yet, when it comes to clothes, we tend to overlook the fact that people (and moths) are not the only consumers around, and the act of consumption is not just about purchasing.
Sometimes, for example, it’s about microbes. They’re the Next Big Thing (or next teeny-tiny thing) in an approach to clothing that focuses not just on the materials we use to make what we wear, but what happens to those materials when all the wearing is done. Especially when those materials happen to be the sort of materials currently demonized as part of the ocean plastics crisis. Which is to say: polyester.
What if it some little life-form saw it as an awfully tasty snack?
In an industry traditionally focused on the birth of a garment as opposed to its death, where “organic” is taken as gospel and “synthetic” is a term tantamount to the devil, the idea that polyester might not be a long-term enemy is pretty disruptive. But lately, in fashion (and fashion-adjacent areas), it’s become kind of, well, “trendy!” said Jason Kibbey, the chief executive of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.
Consider the case of PrimaLoft, an Albany-based brand that specializes in high-performance material science. Initially known for the synthetic microfiber insulation also called PrimaLoft that the company created for the armed forces in the 1980s (down, the traditional filling for cold-weather gear, loses effectiveness when wet), it has since branched out into the outdoor and lifestyle clothing industries.
PrimaLoft was already making insulation and technical fabrics like fleece from recycled polyester — created from bottles that have been chopped up into flake and formed into little pellets that then get extruded and run through giant rollers, ultimately becoming filaments 50 times thinner than a strand of hair and half the diameter of cashmere. But when the issue of microplastics became an urgent part of the conversation around fashion and sustainability around 2014, the company started to think it was part of the problem. And then, said Mike Joyce, the president and chief executive of PrimaLoft, they began to wonder what could be done about it.
“There are naturally occurring micro-organisms that will consume plastic over centuries, but it’s not a desirable food source for them,” said Vanessa Mason, the senior vice president of engineering. “It’s more a choice of last resort.” So, the team thought, what if they could alter the molecular structure of polyester to change that? Why not make the plastic more yummy eating?
PrimaLoft Bio fibers up close.CreditCourtesy of PrimaLoft; Illustration by The New York Times (microbes)
Five years and around a million dollars of research and testing later they have an answer — or at least the beginnings of one. Essentially, they attach a simple sugar to the recycled polyester polymer to “make it a more desirable food source,” said Ms. Mason. (She would not be any more specific, as PrimaLoft considers the process proprietary technology and the company’s patent application is currently under review.)
It turns out, said Ms. Mason, who is a chemical engineer by training, that “microbes like sugar the way children do.” When faced with a piece of material that contains such sugar, they eat it. Relatively quickly.
In tests carried out in a third party laboratory under two conditions (in landfill and marine environments), the PrimaLoft Bio fibers showed exponentially faster biodegradation than many comparable polyesters. In less than a year and a half (499 days to be exact), about 86 percent of the material had biodegraded in the landfill environment. After 486 days, about 57 percent had biodegraded in a marine environment.
The byproducts left behind — carbon dioxide, methane, water and biomass (expired micro-organisms, humus, and organic waste; all carbon-based) — can be potentially recaptured and used for other purposes. The company plans to continue to track the decomposition until it no longer produces any gases, or to approximately 90 percent biodegradation.
L. L. Bean, Helly Hansen and Houdini, the Swedish outdoor clothing brand, have all made “concept jackets” from the material, which may become available to athletes and other shoppers in the next year or two. (A Belgian lab, OWS, is also conducting its own biodegradation tests.) Mr. Joyce believes the fiber could work for any fleece or polyester-based product made by a fashion brand: dresses, shirts, leggings, and so on.
Still, it’s one thing to measure the impact of a new material in a perfectly closed system (or even a washing machine in a laboratory); it’s another thing once it is out in the world. There are always potential “unintended consequences,” as Mr. Kibbey points out. The proliferation of microplastics shed into the air and sewage systems is just one of them. And Mr. Joyce is careful to note that insulation or even fleece is only part of a garment, and it is the responsibility of designers to consider all the components and create an item that can ultimately be taken apart again in order to facilitate recycling.
“If you make the perfect fluff and it’s wrapped up in a hybrid of other things, the net product will still be suboptimal,” said William McDonough, the architect and author of “Cradle to Cradle” who was a pioneer in circular systems and sustainable design. Material optimized to biodegrade “is a small piece of the puzzle.”
Of the microbe-attracting fiber, Mr. McDonough said: “This is like a tuba, or maybe an oboe.” And “to really make a difference, you need the whole orchestra.” Still, he allowed, “it’s a beautiful instrument.”
It also marks a real evolution in the thinking around fashion and sustainability. First, as Mr. McDonough pointed out, it completely changes the equation by taking technical materials and transforming them into natural nutrients. “I have a name for it,” he said. “Oil to soil.” (Polyester is derived in part from petroleum.)
Second, it places the onus on brands to think more about the long-term question of what happens to garments after they leave stores (traditionally, brands measure their impact over a period known as “cradle to gate”). “I think more and more companies will be held accountable and will hold themselves accountable,” said Mr. Kibbey.
Helly Hansen’s concept jacket, for example, is made not just from PrimaLoft Bio insulation (the company has worked with PrimaLoft on performance products for 15 years), but also wooden buttons and cotton fabric and thread. The team is currently waiting to test the coat with a professional skier to see how it stands up to real-life conditions. If it works, they will bring it to market in 2021, at around the same price as a regular performance layer (say, around $200-$220).
“I hope this shows people that it can be done,” said Ms. Mason of PrimaLoft. “I predict that in the next six months we will see one to three kinds of biodegradable new technologies coming online, and in the next three to five years this space will be very crowded.”
What did the microbe say to the polyester puffer? Why, doughnut you look good.