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Growing Demand for Textiles Drives Sustainable Options Like Bio-Synthetics, Fiber Welding

A range of bio-based materials is helping to build the path away from synthetic fibers that aren’t environmentally sound in manufacturing apparel.

While “there’s no silver bullet” on the journey, said Textile Exchange director of industry engagement Celeste Lilore, leading a Texworld USA panel on “Innovation in Synthetics and the Journey to Preferred,” companies instead would be wise to pursue a “portfolio approach.”

One of the biggest developments in fibers in recent years are bio-synthetics, Lilore said, which essentially combine natural and man-made materials. She cited a recent McKinsey study that said 45 percent of companies surveyed are looking to integrate bio-based materials into their product mix.

Bio-synthetics are important because the global demand for textiles is expected to double by 2050, Lilore added, and naturally derived materials offer an “opportunity to diversify and improve performance.”

“They are emerging and are made from renewable resources with the potential to mitigate climate change,” she said.

Bio-synthetics can also work as a catalyst to transition to a bio-based economy, she said, and use smart technology and materials resources in a more responsible and sustainable way. The development of these fibers also comes as studies have shown that there’s only a 50-year supply of oil left on the planet, which has led 45 countries, including the U.S., to create bio-economy strategies.

Key feedstocks for bio-based fibers include starches and sugars derived from corn, cane sugar, sugar beets, wheat and sorghum, and lipids and oils made from castor, soybean and palm, and cooking oil waste. There also are bio-mass or waste-based raw materials that come from food, farming or forests and contain valuable cellulose from trees and grasses.

Discussing recycled polyester as a replacement for virgin polyester, Lilore said replacing petroleum with pre- and post-consumer PET, most commonly found in plastic water bottles, can reduce the impact on the environment such as oil spills and toxicity from production and minimize the waste stream by diverting these bottles from landfills.

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“Recycled polyester used between 30 percent to 50 percent less energy to produce than its conventional counterpart,” she said. “Two-thirds of the respondents from the McKinsey survey said they were planning to use recycled polyester.”

A range of bio-based materials are helping led the way away from synthetic fibers that aren’t sustainable in manufacturing apparel.

Lauren Johnson, sustainability manager at Eastman, said the company’s chemical recycling initiatives have in the pass year been introduced to the market and have begun scaling up to full production.

“Compared with mechanical recycling, which can take a small range of materials and recycle them and reuse them, chemical recycling can take a broad array of materials that cannot current be mechanically recycled, and we unzip the molecules and turn them into chemical building blocks, and then we reuse those building blocks to make new products that are indistinguishable from products made using prime materials,” Johnson said.

Eastman’s advanced circular recycling allows for the take back of all types of polyester and make them into new polyesters or other materials made from the same building block. The company’s carbon renewal technology can take a broader mix of plastics and other materials and breaks them down for reuse.

What that means is that materials that would otherwise end up in landfills or incinerated are diverted to make sustainable products.

Dr. Luke Haverhals, founder and CEO of Natural Fiber Welding, revealed how he discovered a way to make natural fibers fuse together without using any petrochemicals. This technique allows materials like waste fiber from cotton, coconuts, hemp and vegetable oils to be assembled to make products that previously had to be blended with synthetic materials.

One example is Natural Fiber Welding’s Mirum, a plant-based leather that is a composite material blending virgin and biodegradable recycled plant matter. It’s also engineered to be recycled after its product life cycle is over, Johnson noted.