Published 7 months ago.
About a 7 minute read.
Image: Hulki Okan Tabak
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.
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
— which wreak
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
hundreds of years for
the fabric itself, or the mere decades promised by other biodegradability
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.
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
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
are landfilled or burned, resulting in hundreds of years of plastic pollution.
— which puts about 2.2 million tons
of microplastics into the ocean each year — is the largest
of microplastic pollution. Over a third of marine microplastic
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
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.
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.
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
(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 —
“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.”
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
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
Ferris says CiCLO could be used in other applications as well, such as plastic
But the company is quite protective of who can use its technology: It doesn’t
want to enable more unnecessary plastic consumption justified by
“We are very specifically not targeting unnecessary
such as single-use
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:
Necessary and irreplaceable, and
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.
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.”
Published Jul 18, 2023 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 1pm BST / 2pm CEST
Christian is a writer, photographer, filmmaker, and outdoor junkie obsessed with the intersectionality between people and planet. He partners with brands and organizations with social and environmental impact at their core, assisting them in telling stories that change the world.