At a meeting in 2014, a PrimaLoft product manager recalled stumbling upon a piece of “compostable” packaging. Sitting in a boardroom at the company’s Latham, N.Y., headquarters, a sudden brain wave seized her: “Why can’t we just make a jacket insulation that we can bury in the backyard?” she asked.
PrimaLoft is no stranger to “what ifs” and “why nots.” Its synthetic fill has been giving duck and goose down a run for its money since the ’80s, when U.S. Army Research Laboratory commissioned Albany International, PrimaLoft’s former parent company, to create a high-loft, polyester-based alternative to feathered insulation. Albany International delivered, and a new breed of weatherproof stuffing was born.
Animal-rights’ activists aren’t fans of the real deal, of course: Less vigilant brands and retailers can end up sourcing their down from live-plucked birds or ducks and geese that have been force-fed for the production of foie gras.
But plastic, which PrimaLoft essentially traffics in, has gained a bad rap in the ensuing decades. Stitched and woven into clothes, polyester and its petroleum-derived ilk have been found to contribute to microplastic pollution, an issue of such burgeoning import that even the U.K.’s Prince Harry felt compelled to weigh in on the matter during a recent visit to a litter-strewn beach in Melbourne, Australia.
PrimaLoft has headed off some of the criticism—and earned some plaudits on the way—with its Gold and Black series of insulations, which comprise 55 percent and 60 percent post-consumer recycled polyester, respectively. In June, it previewed its new Silver and Black collections, each primed with 100 percent reclaimed content.
Recycled or not, however, plastic isn’t something that will break down and disappear from the face of the planet anytime soon. Most synthetics will stubbornly linger in the environment for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Even then they’ll never completely vanish but instead splinter off into smaller and smaller bits.
Which brings us back to the product manager’s original question: Why can’t PrimaLoft make a jacket insulation people can bury in the backyard?
The good news? It just did.
On Tuesday, the company announced the launch of PrimaLoft Bio, the first synthetic insulation made from 100 percent recycled, biodegradable fibers. Turns out, it took its employee’s suggestion to heart, spending the past four years working toward this first-of-its-kind breakthrough, which does not change the “performance, look or feel” of the garment, PrimaLoft said in a statement. It’ll be available to consumers in the fall of 2020.
PrimaLoft Bio, the firm noted, breaks down when “exposed to the right environment, such as a landfill or ocean.” PrimaLoft’s scientists and engineers tinkered with the fibers to make them more appetizing to naturally occurring microbes found in those conditions. The microbes gobble away at the fibers at a faster rate, leaving behind water, methane and carbon dioxide, along with biomass from expired microorganisms and organic waste. The process, PrimaLoft is keen to emphasize, has no negative effect on the environment.
Tests—lots of them, according to the company—back up these claims, too. Under simulated landfill conditions, the fibers achieved 75.9 percent degradation in 365 days—“a highly accelerated rate as compared to the negligible degradation observed in standard polyester, under the same conditions,” PrimaLoft said. That doesn’t mean it’s a weaker product, though. Because the insulation biodegrades only when exposed to microbes in landfills or bodies of water, it’ll maintain its integrity and durability throughout the garment’s use cycle.
“PrimaLoft material science experts are always looking at how our technologies can provide solutions,” Mike Joyce, president and CEO of PrimaLoft, told Sourcing Journal. “In this case, several years ago we became increasingly aware of the global microplastics crisis and began to research ways for PrimaLoft to use its materials expertise to address this issue. We chose to attack this at the source: the fiber.”
Although the company is already pursuing a goal to imbue 90 percent of its insulation products with at least 50 percent recycled content by 2020, the current state of the planet requires more valiant action, he said.
Returning PrimaLoft Bio fibers to “natural elements,” Joyce added, goes “beyond recycling, pushing sustainability to the next step.” Eventually, it wants to work with its brand partners to attain its “ultimate goal”: a jacket made completely from biodegradable materials.
“We are confident that this technology will inspire positive change and opens doors to many possibilities by reshaping the way companies and consumers view sustainable innovation,” he said.
PrimaLoft said it plans to incorporate its new biodegradable technology across all product lines in the coming years, leading to millions of tons of fiber each year that will degrade at this accelerated rate. In time, it said it hopes the amount of textile waste persisting in the environment will decrease exponentially.
“Recycling is a worthy approach but we’re looking for the ultimate answer,” he added.
Still, Joyce remembered more than a few nervous looks at that meeting four years ago.
“My first thought was, ‘Wow, that’s impossible. That’s like putting a man on the moon.’”