Biodegradable – Nature’s Solution or Dead End?
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
Throughout history, human technologies have more or less unwittingly been in harmony with nature’s cycles. Our textiles, for example, would biodegrade and nourish the soil, which would in turn grow new crops and support new flocks of sheep. No longer.
Waste can be seen as the antithesis of a cycle, and the last century is shaping up to become the perfect case study of what things look like when human outputs run afoul of nature’s cycles – in more ways than one. But get ready for a fun fact: mother nature has had a few embarrassing hiccups along the way herself.
Just 300 million years ago, for example, 160 ft tall (50m) plants first appeared across the Earth – trees. The microbes and fungus of the time, however, wouldn’t evolve the ability to ingest these newcomers for another 60 million years. This meant that trees would rise and fall, only to pile up on top of each other in what might be called geological history’s biggest mess. With time, heat and pressure, this mess would eventually turn into today’s deep lying layers of coal.
With plastic microfiber pollution, one could say this history is repeating itself and microbes are late for dinner once again. Only this time, humans are to blame and, unless we want to wait a few million years on evolution, it’s up to us to repair the cycle. This leaves us with two options: stop non-biodegradable materials from entering nature via circular design, and/or replace these materials with biodegradable ones.
Synthetics were meant to be a sustainable solution
To better judge these options, it helps to understand the underlying reasons behind the rise of synthetics. In many ways, synthetics were themselves originally seen as a solution to the problems associated with natural fibers. Charles Ross works as a consultant and university lecturer specializing in Performance Sportswear Design & Sustainability, and works with among others the EOG’s Sustainability Working Group. As he explains:
“Almost all natural fibers require massive amounts of land, water, energy, fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides and not to mention labor to procure. Synthetics, on the other hand, require comparatively little of these.”
Add to that characteristics like durability and low-maintenance and it’s easy to see how the scale tipped in their favor. Were it not for the recent understanding of the degree to which they contribute to plastic pollution, especially in the oceans, and the effects this is having on the food chain, synthetics would have likely continued to be known as the more sustainable solution. But now, many question whether fibers that cannot biodegrade should have a place in a sustainable future at all.
However, a closer look at biodegradable fibers reveals that things aren’t exactly as black and white as they seem.
The downsides of biodegradability
While at first glance biodegradability fits best with nature’s cycles, the virtues of biodegradability as an industry-wide solution is much more complicated on at least three counts. Firstly, aside from the aforementioned greater production impacts of natural fibers versus synthetics, biodegradation as a product’s end-of-life strategy is seen to be particularly wasteful when synthetics can in theory be recycled indefinitely.
Secondly, biodegradation emits greenhouse gases CO2 and methane in significant quantities, unlike fossil-based synthetics, which can be seen as a form of sequestering carbon – if one turns a blind eye to the oil industry’s burning of the remaining 99.5% of the oil they pull up.
Finally, even if a product is technically biodegradable, the process itself is not straightforward.
“Biodegradation also requires the right conditions to happen. Wool biodegrades easily, but some fibers generally seen as biodegradable, Type 1 cellulosics like cotton for example, have been found to be persistent in marine environments if they have been treated with synthetic dyes,” explains Charles Ross, and continues: “Yet whether or not this represents a similar threat to marine life as synthetic fibers requires further study.”
Vaude: “We’ve moved on”
Within the outdoor industry, biodegradable materials have been on the verge of becoming a trend in recent years. But not all agree that this is the way for the industry to go. The German outdoor brand Vaude has established itself as one of the industry leaders in sustainability. Alarmed with the reports of microfiber pollution, Vaude set out to find ways to mitigate its own product impacts some years ago. Among other things, this work resulted in the creation of an award-winning fleece jacket using the biodegradable Type 2 cellulose-based fiber, Tencel.
René Bethmann, Innovation Manager Materials and Manufacturing at Vaude, today perceives such product innovation and experimentation as crucial to their learning process, but says that for Vaude, biodegradability and sustainability are no longer necessarily seen to go hand in hand:
“The solution cannot be just to replace all clothing to biodegradable – durability and recyclability is the solution. That’s why Vaude’s focus has moved past biodegradability to circular design.”
Through the use of biobased plastics and the development of wide-spread collection systems, René Bethmann sees the potential for closed loop manufacturing as the holy grail of sustainability. With respect to unintentional microfiber pollution, he argues that it’s the handling of synthetics and not only the synthetics themselves that needs to be addressed.
“Our best-case scenario is to stop micro-fiber pollution through a combination of solutions like better constructions and filters at the source. Industry is trying to address this but needs help with effective regulatory policies.”
Ultimately, for René Bethmann the shortcomings of biodegradables have caused him to support biobased synthetics:
“I know the topic of biodegradability has become a big trend, but I see a contradiction in wanting a product that is both durable and that degrades quickly. This will just lead to greater resource waste, which is why I’d say it represents a huge danger and risk for our industry.
Houdini: Not necessarily an either/or issue
The Swedish outdoor sportswear brand Houdini has also been working at the vanguard of industry sustainability. When it comes to the synthetics/ natural fiber stand-off, Houdini has decided to play both sides:
“To combat our industry’s impacts, radical change will be required. But we have to remember that it’s a multi-front war and there are no silver bullets. At Houdini, our circular design principles are combined with building on the positives while reducing and eliminating the negatives of both synthetic and natural fibers,” explains the company’s CEO Eva Karlsson.
This pragmatic approach has led to a collection packed with both biodegradable wool products as well as recycled and recyclable synthetics.
“When it comes to natural fibers, if ill-managed they can be devastating to land systems and biodiversity. But these impacts can largely be mitigated, and can in fact become restorative if managed correctly,” says Eva Karlsson, and continues:
“Here, we are aiming towards recycled and recyclable natural fibers, as well as ones that are fully-compostable, not just biodegradable, at their end-of-life.”
In general, many challenges arise from natural fibers being mixed with synthetics, ruling out the ability to recycle for both. Additionally, biodegradable fibers like wool are most often treated with a cocktail of chemicals and dyes that would toxify any soil, and the products will contain non-biodegradable parts. Houdini tackles these issues already at the design stage, striving to ensure that recyclable products – both natural and synthetic – are not mixed with non-recyclable and that biodegradable fibers are of a quality that can actually compost without contaminating soil.
Houdini has proven the compostability of these products with its Houdini Menu Project, culminating in a three-course meal, prepared by a celebrity chef, based on plants grown in soil with their composted clothes.
Houdini currently makes use of the advantages of synthetics and, following recent innovations, Eva Karlsson says that she is optimistic that the problems associated with them can and will be solved. But as we don’t know what the future has in store, she argues that a responsible company must continue to plan based on today’s realities:
“Currently, synthetics represent a risk not just with micro-fiber pollution but also due to the planetary impacts of crude oil extraction, lack of value chain traceability and transparency and limited recycling opportunities. If sustainably sourced, biobased, recyclable, traceable and biodegradable synthetics can be fully realized – we’re all for it! But we’re not there yet. Most synthetics that end up in nature today will contaminate it for hundreds of years to come. Against this reality, biodegradable fibers are a responsible choice.”
For this reason, at Houdini, synthetics are up against the clock. As Eva Karlsson explains:
“Nature provides the blueprint for circular design, and to date we have moved 70% of our styles from linear to circular. By 2030 our goal is to have a circular ecosystem at Houdini, meaning we will have no waste streams. Anywhere. Microplastic pollution is a waste stream, albeit an unintentional one, and if we haven’t solved this by then we will have to replace synthetics.”
Jury still out
While it remains unclear how the impacts of synthetic and natural fibers ultimately balance out, the fact is that natural fibers are not without their share of problems, and many may not even biodegrade unless in ideal conditions.
One way or another, a cycle that can handle synthetic fibers will arise, either by natural processes or by human intent. Obviously, we can’t afford to wait on nature’s evolutionary R&D, with its timeline measured in epochs.
Vaude is betting on circular design that mimics nature’s own cycles, and is advocating for policies and innovations that stop microfibers from entering the environment. Houdini, on the other hand, is betting that they can create a cycle with both synthetic and natural fibers in just a little over 10 years – beating the aforementioned microbes’ 60 million years with a healthy margin.
One thing Charles Ross, René Bethmann and Eva Karlsson can agree on is the urgent need to stop microfiber pollution, and call on industry and policy makers to get it done. But this aside, it’s safe to say that a consensus surrounding what role biodegradability can and should take remains to be hashed out.
Biodegradable refers to a substance’s ability to be broken down by the action of living organisms like fungus and microorganisms into its elemental parts. This ability is dependent on factors such as temperature, time, the presence of specific fungi and bacteria and the specific environment (e.g. marine vs. land).
Disintegration, in contrast to biodegradation, is the continual fragmentation and reduction of size of a substance (e.g. plastic reduces to micro-plastic).
Compostable refers to a substance that can biodegrade into its molecular components under natural conditions relatively quickly, and the end result will contain no eco-toxicity.
Not all things biodedegradable are compostable. Not all biodegradable products are made from renewable resources, and vice versa. Similarly, not all biobased products are biodegradable. Many of the latter are chemically identical to fossil-fuel based ones and carry the same properties.