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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Textile Additive Expedites Breakdown of Stubborn, Synthetic Fibers

Despite its potential to address microplastic pollution on a number of fronts, the makers of CiCLO stress they don’t want to enable more unnecessary plastic consumption justified by ‘biodegradability.’

“Made to last” shouldn’t mean “here forever.” But for the majority of textiles today, that’s the unfortunate reality.

60 percent of all textiles used today are synthetic — the most ubiquitous of which, polyester, is made from the same material used to make plastic bottles. The fibers persist in the environment for long periods of time, eventually breaking down into microplastic fibers — which wreak havoc on the living organisms and ecosystems that come into contact with them.

But a new textile additive enables synthetic fabrics such as polyester and nylon to biodegrade in the environment at rates similar to wool (meaning, in 3-4 months vs hundreds of years for the fabric itself, or the mere decades promised by other biodegradability additives). What’s more, it’s easily integrated into current production processes and doesn’t compromise garment durability or function.

In lab conditions, CiCLO® — a sustainable additive that can be combined with polyester and nylon during melt extrusion at the very beginning of the fiber-making process — vastly accelerates decomposition of these synthetic fabrices in soil, wastewater treatment plants, landfills and seawater. The combination of ingredients in CiCLO — which comprise less than one percent of the total fiber makeup — has been OEKO-TEX Eco Passport certified for safe use in sustainable textiles, along with additional testing to ensure it’s safe to marine life.

The problem with synthetic microfibers

Synthetic microfibers are tiny strands of man-made fabric that have shed or broken off from garments, rugs, upholstery and more. Polyester is the most widely used textile fiber in the world, and is widely known to persist in the environment. The WWF estimates that PET — the material used in producing polyester garments — takes up to 450 years to decompose. In the US, 85 percent of all clothes are landfilled or burned, resulting in hundreds of years of plastic pollution.

Laundering synthetic fabrics — which puts about 2.2 million tons of microplastics into the ocean each year — is the largest source of microplastic pollution. Over a third of marine microplastic pollution comes from textiles alone, equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles. Microplastics can be found in the air, rainwater, soil, the ocean, and even in the human bloodstream. They’re too large and rigid for microbes to break down and consume; no feasible options exist for cleaning up microfibers in the environment, leading to accumulations of truly alarming proportions.

A 2020 study estimates that 5.6 million tons of synthetic microfibers have entered the environment between 1950 and 2016 from textile washing alone. Half of this amount was emitted in the last decade, and that number is estimated to grow 13 percent annually. When a synthetic garment is washed, shed fibers make their way to wastewater treatment plants, where they are trapped in sludge. This sludge eventually makes it into the terrestrial environment as fertilizer or landfill, applying concentrated microfiber-rich material across the landscape. As in the oceans, microfibers are also among the most dominant forms of microplastics pollution in soil — with up 300,000 metric tons entering soil each year from biosolid applications alone.

How does biodegradation work?

Microbes secrete enzymes that break down molecules into substances they need to survive; water also helps to break down these bonds. But larger molecules (such as those in polyester) need to be broken down before microbes can digest them.

Left on their own, synthetic materials eventually break down into smaller and smaller microfibers; but as mentioned, it takes ages — and these tiny particles are still too large for microbes to digest. Applying CiCLO provides small points where microbes can break down nodes in synthetic molecules into small enough bites for digestion.

During fiber production, CiCLO is permanently embedded in the matrix of polyester and nylon fibers. It acts as a nutrient source for microbes and increases hydrophilicity (water absorption) to further assist in biodegradation. It also decreases the rigid, crystalline structures of synthetic fibers — giving a further beachhead for microbes to infiltrate, proliferate and completely break down the material.

CiCLO underwent third-party lab testing in four environments where microfiber pollution is regularly found: Wastewater treatment plant sludge, landfills, seawater and soil. CiCLO-treated materials fully degrade in about four-and-a-half years, compared to traditional synthetic fibers that see single-digit decomposition in the same conditions and time period.

But those are lab studies. Real-world decomposition rates will differ — potentially, drastically.

“There are a lot of factors that go into determining the rate of biodegradation in uncontrolled conditions,” Andrea Ferris, a textile innovation veteran and co-founder of Intrinsic Advanced Materials — the company behind CiCLO — told Sustainable Brands®. “[Uncontrolled conditions] is exactly what we’re solving for, because what we want is for a material to be super durable during its useful phase; we want it to last and last and be loved for a long time, so you don’t need to buy more. But, if it winds up in the environment as a pollutant, it’s not going to last forever.”

Why not just stop using synthetics?

Polyester has incredible performance characteristics — which is why it's a go-to fabric for use in performance wear, active wear and outdoor apparel. Natural alternatives exist, such as wool or silk; however, synthetic garments are probably here to stay.

“Polyester is the number-one material for textiles,” Ferris said. “It’s in everything — from our clothes to our bedding to our furniture. Polyester and nylon have characteristics that natural fibers do not have. [CiCLO] is solving for the fact that the world does use polyester — it’s not going away anytime soon; and considering the sheer volume of polyester we use, there is no material that could fulfill the need that polyester provides for textiles … [CiCLO] is a sort of sustainability insurance for the fibers that end up as fugitives in the environment.”

Of course, a truly sustainable textile industry would mean looking beyond a binary of degradable vs. persistent. Reductions in consumption, improved garment care to extend life and smart design must go hand in hand with innovations such as CiCLO in solving the environmental issues that plastics will continue to cause.

Beyond clothes

Ferris says CiCLO could be used in other applications as well, such as plastic packaging. But the company is quite protective of who can use its technology: It doesn’t want to enable more unnecessary plastic consumption justified by “biodegradability.”

“We are very specifically not targeting unnecessary plastics, such as single-use plastics,” she said. “There are times when biodegradable plastic makes sense, and there are times when it doesn’t. It wouldn’t make sense for us to sell our technology to a petrochemical company making single-use straws. We’re not making things biodegradable to be disposable. We’re dealing with unavoidable and fugitive pollution in the environment.”

Ferris said biodegradable plastics make sense if their application is:

  1. Necessary and irreplaceable, and

  2. Has a high likelihood of entering the environment as pollution.

For CiCLO, single-use plastics don’t fit this bill. CiCLO tightly controls distribution of its technology, only selling to certified manufacturers that participate in the company’s traceability program.

Not a silver bullet

Ferris stresses that CiCLO is no panacea; it wasn’t created to excuse rampant consumption or dilute the imperative for smarter, more holistic approaches to producing, using and disposing of textiles.

“CiCLO is a piece of the puzzle; and that’s exactly how we pitch it to retailers and brands considering our technology,” she said. “[CiCLO] can be combined with recycled raw materials, and finished CiCLO materials can be recycled. This is really a piece of the puzzle to help mitigate fibers that we cannot trap and make their way into the environment.”