All the benefits of conventional synthetics without the dependency on fossil fuels? Or, all the impacts of natural fibers without many of their sustainability benefits? Too early to say.
What are biosynthetics?
The terms bioplastics, biopolymers and biobased plastics are often used interchangeably with biosynthetics, and include several different types of synthetic materials. But biosynthetics are essentially materials that are manufactured, either partially or entirely, using renewable biological sources like plant biomass (corn, sugar cane, beetroot, plant oils, straw and wood chips etc.). These raw materials then undergo a chemical process that break them down into polymers (chains of large molecules). The polymers are then spun and woven or knitted into fabric. Finished biosynthetic fibers are also often mixed with fossil fuel-based synthetics to attain desired characteristics like strength and flexibility within the finished fabric.
What are the sustainability benefits of biosynthetics?
Generally speaking, they have the benefit of being partly or fully derived from renewable resources. This helps bypass the textile industry’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels in producing synthetic fibers, such as polyester and nylon. With regard to recyclability, the only biosynthetic that is currently recycled on a larger scale is bio polyethylene (bio PE), which is primarily used in packaging. Most aren’t recyclable within existing municipal recycling centers, let alone compostable unless in industrial composters that maintain high temperatures for weeks at a time. But as they haven’t been around long, whether a material is recyclable and how scalable infrastructure for recycling could be developed is as of yet an unresolved issue. Similarly, ecological and economic evaluations on biosynthetics remain limited.
What are the potential impacts of biosynthetics on the environment?
Here there is no all-encompassing answer, as each raw material must first undergo its own life-cycle analysis to understand the full impacts. For example: if rainforest in Brazil is first cut down for an agroindustrial monoculture sugar cane field, which is then refined into ethanol and bio-based polyethylene in facilities run on coal power, and the materials are then transported to China to manufacture products that are transported to Europe or North America, the comparative negative environmental impact can be very large. Additionally, the land required for biosynthetics’ raw material source may compete with food production and contribute to higher food scarcity and costs.
The upshot is that new technologies are being developed for commercial use that are aimed at repurposing industrial waste products and non-food resources like agriculture residue and algae into textiles. With these advancements, the future of biosynthetics looks promising – but it’s not there yet.
BIOSYNTHETICS ROUND TABLE
Launched in 2016, the Textile Exchange’s BRT aims to develop a framework to assess biosynthetics and to define the preferred bionsynthetics to help the industry make informed decisions. The initiative hosts the aboutbiosynthetics. org microsite and a Quick Guide about Biosynthetics
INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATION FOR STANDARDIZATION
Due to its relative newness, widespread standards relating to biobased are largely still in the works.One of the most inclusive and extensive standardization bodies for biobased is currently the ISO’s.
Illustration: Kiki Fjell