Ask the expert: no-no materials

Posted in Life
by Anna Brismar on 17 October, 2014

Conventional polyester, nylon and acrylic cannot successfully decompose in landfills.

Every week, Make it last’s sustainability expert Anna Brismar of Green Strategy answers questions about fashion and sustainability. Read more about what sustainable fashion really is, or at least how we define it, with the help of Anna, here.

What are the absolute no-no’s material wise?

– Polyester is a man-made (synthetic) and non-biodegradable type of fiber that one should avoid to the greatest extent possible, even if the garment has a timeless design and is stitched with fine strong seams. Virgin polyester is produced ​​from crude oil, which is extracted by oil drilling. Oil drilling often occurs along sensitive coastal zones and therefore entails significant environmental risks during actual drilling, but may also impinge on terrestrial animal and plant life as well as human societies when pipelines are drawn over long distances on land. If drilling accidents or larger oil spills do occur in the oceans, they generally have far reaching, long-lasting and devastating consequences for wild life and ecosystems in affected areas, both in the sea and along the coastlines.

Materials containing conventionally grown cotton should also be avoided. Large-scale mechanized cotton farming involves the use of massive amounts of water for irrigation, as well as intensive use of pesticides (insecticides) and herbicides, to protect the crops against insect attacks and weeds, as well as chemical fertilizers to increase crop yields on the field. Together, such agricultural practices put pressure on limited water resources and a heavy strain on ecosystems (as pollutants leak into groundwater aquifers, lakes, rivers and finally the oceans). Also, such practices impose significant health risks for the farmers dealing with and inhaling the toxic agrochemicals.

Wool produced on unethical grounds should also not be used. In Australia and New Zealand, a majority of the sheep farms still use painful methods for keeping the sheep free from insect infestations, through mulesing and sheep dipping. Even cutting of the wool can be made in stressful ways for the sheep.

Mixing different material types, for example polyester and cotton, in a way that aggravates separate recovery of different components from a product at its end of life should also be avoided. For example, plastic prints should not be used to decorate cotton t-shirts, and elastane or lycra should not be weaved into jeans. At least not before we have an operational system in place at full scale to successfully collect, sort, separate and recycle these components individually. In fact, because most clothes and other textiles today either become incinerated or thrown into landfills at their end of use, it should be our first priority to choose bio-degradable natural materials (free from harmful chemicals) that can be safely incinerated or decomposed in landfills. We should in fact today try to avoid all non-biodegradable synthetic materials, such as conventional polyester, nylon and acrylic, as they cannot successfully decompose in landfills. (Although recycled polyester is often claimed to be a more sustainable fiber option, without any possibility for consumers to hand it in for fiber recycling, it will still run the risk of being incinerated or ending up in landfills.)

Also, we should avoid all materials containing hazardous chemicals, such as harmful dyeing agents and anti-static, anti-wrinkle and anti-bacterial treatments. These compounds will eventually leak from landfills, or become air pollutants during textile incineration, or even dissolve and reach our waterways during ordinary washing.

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