At the closure of a year, many would rather forget, heartening news comes in the form of a tech startup and fashion brand partnership tackling the last frontier in synthetic textiles innovation—neutering microplastic pollution. Synthetic textiles already account for over 60% of global textile fibers, and the microfibres they shed are toxic to wildlife and our environment and endure for tens of thousands of years. Since toxic microplastics were discovered in our oceans in the early 2000s, the debate about how to halt this pollution has precipitated a fervent consumer backlash against single-use plastic. Concurrently, consumer concern over synthetic textiles shedding microplastics during washing is rising. Synthetic textiles typically created derived from finite fossil fuels, have offered lightweight durability and abrasion resistance far superior to most natural fibers since their invention in the 1930s. The performance and comfort of synthetics, along with surging demand for leisure and sportswear (only increased by the coronavirus pandemic) indicates only a rising demand for synthetic fibers. So what is the (biosynthetic) solution?
Bio-based Versus Biodegradable Polyester
Materials science startup Kintra and burgeoning lifestyle brand PANGAIA are working in partnership to take bio-based and biodegradable ‘synthetic’ fibers to scale, intending to replace their non-biodegradable equivalents. Kintra’s fibers are a form of polyester called polybutylene succinate (PBS) PBS -0.8%, which is biodegradable and compostable, and in Kintra's current process, 56% derived from corn instead of fossil fuels. The flagship material they will launch with PANGAIA "will be 100% bio-based and traced to corn and wheat primary feedstocks," explained Kintra Cofounder and CEO, Billy McCall during a video interview. PBS can be produced by combining several monomers (building blocks of the material) originating from renewable plant sources instead of fossil fuels thanks to recent advances in biotechnology. Crucially, regardless of the raw material ‘feedstock’ (fossil fuel or plant), the industry-standards for creating synthetic materials result in non-biodegradable polyester (eg. PET), polyamide (eg. Nylon), or acrylic. This means that it is the chemical process of creating the synthetic, rather than the initial raw material, that renders it biodegradable. This is an important distinction, as it has been (wrongly) assumed that plant-based polyester is biodegradable by default, which it is not. Despite the chemical difference in Kintra's polyester, their output PBS pellets and fibers are handled in exactly the same manner as their non-biodegradable counterparts, meaning this biodegradable equivalent fits into the existing textile industry infrastructure.
PBS yarns already exist on the market, so what is different about Kintra’s approach, I asked? "We have taken basic PBS chemistry and tailored it at the molecular level to enhance its processability in the value chain, its physical performance in the hands of the consumer, and its environmental performance for the benefit of the planet," said McCall of their patent-pending process. He went on to add: "Provenance and transparency are two key differentiators for our product that highlight our brand philosophy. We are focused on creating highly targeted, value-added products that solve real problems in the fashion industry rather than creating another commodity chemical." During the call with Kintra and PANGAIA teams, the latter’s Chief Innovation Officer Dr. Amanda Parkes explained that Kintra's "bespoke" monomer arrangements are a crucial novel factor in their process. This will allow the design of 'tuned' polyester outputs (according to intended use) that are not just important for PANGAIA's products, but to the 'value-add' business case for replacing current fossil fuel-based polluting polyesters with these new biosynthetic alternatives.
Fashion Brands As Material Innovators
What makes this partnership unique to the fashion industry (but PANGAIA’s raison d’etre) is that PANGAIA are lead investors in Kintra (alongside Tech Council Ventures, and FAB Ventures) and have agreed a commercial partnership with them for their B2C textile business. This represents a lifestyle brand buying into their supply chain and taking an instrumental role in the research and development of a desperately-needed industry solution. The purpose? Firstly, testing the new bio-synthetic textile in their own products to prove viability, and secondly, scaling the proven yarns and textiles for the industry at large, providing the company with two revenue streams that make innovation possible, and financial stability achievable. During numerous discussions with Parkes, she has lamented the industry norm of waiting for textiles to be provided by suppliers who develop them independently of the products they will eventually become. Perhaps that's how we got so carried away with the fantastic plastic emerging from the oil and gas industry that first found its way into military uniforms, automotive and aerospace applications, and afterward (with bulging supply and a need for demand) into our mainstream apparel.
PANGAIA is, in practice, a materials science company and a lifestyle brand, investing in new materials with proven or near-proven environmental gains when compared to incumbent materials. In their textile toolkit are proprietary FLWRDWN and non-proprietary cellulosic blended textiles, recycled cashmere, and recycled polyester. The latter is the target for replacement by this new bio-synthetic innovation. McCall explained that they are “12-18 months away from the first commercial product.” The focus now, he said, is on refining the bio-synthetic resins, producing then testing larger volumes of the resulting yarns in textiles, and conducting further analysis on textile performance. Since their process allows vast arrangements of monomers depending on the intended characteristics of the resulting material, there is much work to be done to define the optimal textile outputs. Parkes added that their strategy will be to “target a single material to get to market quickly.” This will be the base to scale from, where “B2B plays a huge role.” Regarding textile characteristics, McCall claims that initial tests indicate their bio-synthetic polyester will match the performance of industry-standard equivalents.
Bespoke Biodegradable Polyester
Given the tinkering with monomer combinations to achieve biodegradability I wonder what the compromise (if any) is, compared to traditional synthetics. According to McCall, designing and building the end material to be biodegradable tempers the “indestructibility” compared to traditional synthetics. This appears to be a suitable compromise given plastic’s endurance of thousands of years—arguably ‘overkill’ for use in leisurewear that is typically worn for a few years at most. Importantly, this bespoke bio-synthetic design approach supports the circular approach of making materials fit for purpose but simultaneously designed for end of life.
Despite the biodegradability of Kintra fibers, a very real barrier to commercial success could be consumer attitudes towards synthetic fibers, which currently have a blanket reputation as ‘bad.’ Maria Srivastava, PANGAIA’s Chief Impact and Communications Officer, explained that they will be “investing more time and effort in educating consumers” about the difference between their biodegradable synthetics and the non-biodegradable alternatives. This is an area the fashion industry has rarely broached, instead often relying on the branding of materials as simply 'organic' or 'recycled' and rarely stepping into the arena of textile raw materials or synthetic processes. As a writer, I witness the reluctance of scientists and technologists to explain what they do for fear of being misunderstood, but when the message is as important as purchasing a material that does minimal harm, versus one that only harms at the end of life, it’s a story that needs to be told.
Describing their hybrid B2C and B2B business models, which include investing in materials research and development Parkes declared it “a model for the future of the (fashion) industry.” Having spent the past year developing and launching consumer products, including their FLWRDWN jackets, Srivastava declared that 2021 would be “all about B2B (business development).” PANGAIA is clearly committed to the reality that textile innovation will only be both profitable and beneficial to the global environment if it displaces existing (more environmentally damaging) materials. It’s an exciting model and one that echoes collaborative approaches I have reported on in recent weeks. The dawning of a new era of fashion brands that “own their means of production” (as Parkes put it), by cleaning up their materials and measuring their impact is a welcome beacon as 2021 beckons, and the gap between us and our 2030 climate targets narrows further.Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/brookerobertsislam/?sh=5e1f285a7c05