• Brooke Roberts-Islam

Under Armour and Polymateria call for collaboration to tackle textile microfibre pollution

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

The magnitude of the microplastic and microfibre pollution problem is unfolding before our eyes, with the banning of some single-use plastics, the ‘tax’ on plastic bags in supermarkets and the banning of plastic microbeads in cosmetics. But what of the microfibres shed from plastic textiles, which account for over 60% of the global textile fibre market? What contribution are plastic microfibres making to the growing plastic pollution problem? Their presence has been found in over 80% of drinking water in the US, while microplastics and fibres account for 80% of all marine debris from surface waters to deep-sea sediments. Why does this matter? Because we don’t yet know the long term environmental and health effects of prolonged exposure to, and ingestion of, microplastics and microfibres. The health crisis that unfolded in the early 2000s due to PFASs (a synthetic chemical for water and oil-proofing textiles and cookware) that were introduced in the 1940s has taught us that absence of evidence of ill health (until the 2000s) does not equal proof of safety.

Faced with two broad options: wait and see what happens, hoping that current research indicating plastic's toxicity is wrong; or, 'turn off the tap' by replacing or re-designing culprit plastics. Research reveals that textile microfibres may be more abundant, particularly in seawater, than is believed, due to water tests literally skimming the surface and therefore not assessing accumulation of heavier microfibres on the sea bed. As a result, experts in polymer, environmental and materials science say it’s time to take action on plastic textiles. To support this, Conservation X Labs, a technology and innovation company that creates solutions to stop the extinction crisis, has established the Microfiber Innovation Challenge, awarding a share of $650k to any individual, group or company with a solution at Technology Readiness Level (TRL) stage 4 or higher, that tackles upstream microfibre pollution from textiles.

With the deadline just a few days away, on June 25th, Techstyler + Conservation X Labs hosted a panel discussion with experts in materials science, polymer innovation and product development, and commercial textile design and manufacturing to dig into the challenges and opportunities facing those attempting to solve the microfibre problem. Join the conversation via the synopsis below, which highlights key moments from the panel discussion, and shares pivotal insights.

Dr Sydney Glandman, Chief Scientific Officer at Material Innovation Initiative, spent much of the past 5 years as a materials science consultant in the field of synthetic polymers, and her research has taken her to the annals of deep ocean plastic analysis and the evolving US and EU guidelines and regulations on microplastic and microfibre pollution. At the Materials Innovation Initiative, she conducts research and writes open-access reports informing material scientists, organisations or research groups who seek guidelines on the current status of textile sustainability, with a focus on replacing materials of animal origin. Gladman’s work has taught her that “there is no one silver bullet”, and she believes the solution to the microfiber problem will be multifaceted, including leveraging synthetic biology to supercharge the creation of protein-based fibres without the traditional agricultural downsides, and more rigorous analysis of the current state of microfiber pollution. On the subject of regulation, she believes the likely first step will be to “place limits on shedding allowed from textiles”. The first port of call, to her mind, would be imposing limits on textiles known to shed at extremely high rates, like synthetic fleece fabrics.

There is a visceral reaction (of consumers) right now to single-use plastic water bottles, but not the same visceral reaction to a polyester t-shirt.

Dr Sydney Gladman, Chief Scientific Officer, Materials Innovation Initiative.

Niall Dunne, CEO of Polymateria, the WEF award-winning technology pioneers behind time-controlled biodegradable polyolefin food packaging, added to the regulation discussion by highlighting the difference between lab-based performance standards and performance in nature. The latter needs to be the barometer to which claims are made, he asserted, cautioning against making misleading claims in advance of environmental proof. A helpful example is PHAs - a new and promising category of synthetic polymers that have been somewhat marred by the extrapolation of land-based biodegradability tests to claim oceanic biodegradability. The contravention here is that the ocean environment is not constant, “with multiple changing variables (and) making it difficult to represent in a standard” according to Dunne. “The depths of the ocean are a completely sterile environment,” he said, “nothing can biodegrade down there”. So to this end, Dunne calls for standards that are universally applied, to understand and compare the merits of one polymer material and another, thereby removing the margin for erroneous interpretations and unfounded extrapolations. Polymateria’s role in establishing the new BSI for polymer biodegradation is a case in point and a critical point of credibility for their environmental assertions.

Uniquely positioned to understand the commercial consequences of microfibre shedding and consumer attitudes and concerns is Kyle Blakely, VP of materials and manufacturing at Under Armour. A stalwart of material innovation with over a decade of experience at Under Armour, Blakely oversees the ambitious Lighthouse lab, where the company has set up an in-house polymer science and materials R&D facility. Why bring this expensive and challenging task in-house, particularly when the entire RMG industry largely outsourced product development several decades ago to Asia and beyond? Under Armour are taking ownership of the microfiber shedding problem by developing their own pre-textile polymers, yarns and sample textiles, and testing them in-house according to their internal shedding protocols, explained Blakely.

Creating super expensive instrumentation (tackling the shedding problem) is not going to work. It needs to be scalable and something that makes sense for multiple industries.

Kyle Blakely, VP Materials and Manufacturing, Under Armour.

How, I wonder, is a shedding protocol established in the absence of universal standards? How do you know you’ve got it right, I asked? Blakely says their internal protocol is a work in progress, with ongoing data collection, and reiterates regularly that “we have to do something” rather than sit back and wait for (external) solutions. About “turning off the tap” he says Under Armour takes the approach of removing textiles from use that demonstrate high shedding levels, and also explains that there are cost implications of replacement textiles that the company absorbs. “Sustainability and performance” are Under Armour’s goal, he says, explaining that the “sweet spot” that he and his team are always searching for is a material with superior sustainability credentials and higher levels of performance. Herein lies the opportunity to justify higher price points due to demonstrable superiority, and eliminate the less sustainable alternatives.

Herein, also, lies the conundrum for fast fashion - a serious contributor to microfibre waste due to “throwaway culture” with very high levels of synthetic polymer textile used in this market segment. A recent RSA report indicates some fast fashion brands use predominantly polyester in their products, most of which is virgin, due to price and availability. The downsides? Textile persistence way beyond the timeframe of use, and microfibre shedding. Does fast fashion have more in common with single-use plastics than we have acknowledged? To Niall Dunne I posed the question, “Could Polymateria’s biotransformation process (which results in plastic biodegradation in nature with no toxic microplastic residue) be applied to textiles?” Possibly, he said, but the focal challenge is cracking the crystallisation problem, which I outlined in the primer article in the lead up to the panel discussion.

The discussion also addressed bio-based feedstocks for synthetic materials, which have been demonstrated to emit lower greenhouse gases compared to fossil fuel sources. Bio-based feedstocks “have the benefit of offering a desirable narrative”, explained Dunne, but ultimately, they still shed microplastics. And when examined end-to-end using Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), he says the results can be “horrendous.” Furthermore, they are more expensive. Polymateria have produced their packaging products from both fossil fuel and bio-based feedstocks (for example, from castor oil), but the industry “won’t buy it because it’s more expensive,” says Dunne. For this reason, they use fossil fuel feedstocks. Inevitably, such materials discussions always result in a tradeoff between cost and sustainability. Scalability is also a crucial factor. All panellists noted that the small production volume of more sustainable materials is a significant limiting factor for adoption by brands. For example, Gladman referenced promising synthetic biology processes for producing silk, however, they are not yet scalable or price competitive.

Mother nature is our most powerful circular economy - everything in the universe heads back from order into chaos at some point.

Niall Dunne, CEO, Polymateria.

In closing, the panellists shared their views on the most hopeful advances in tackling the microfibre shedding problem. Gladman cited the range of exciting protein and plant-based materials currently in development, highlighting new raw materials as a source of exciting innovations, albeit “quite a way out” in terms of large scale production. Dunne reflected on the tradeoff of “perishability versus persistence” and the teachings of Bill McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle, reminding the audience that all materials inevitably return to nature, so should be designed as non-toxic and truly biodegradable, supporting circular economy principles. He also called for “collaboration to create much better standards.” Blakley shared that having the opportunity to invest in in-house R&D and work with collaborators to collectively problem-solve was a unique and new position “with leeway I don’t think we had 4 or 5 years ago” to get feedback from consumers. He called for collaboration and openness, inviting innovators to approach Under Armour with solutions to see if working partnerships are possible. “The conversation is wide open and the investment is there” for the innovations needed to solve these problems, he said. Under Armour are partners on the Microfiber Innovation Challenge, with prize winners being offered the opportunity to access the Under Armour Lighthouse to advance their innovations. The full panel discussion can be viewed here:

Conservation X Labs Open Innovation Director, Barbara Martinez, joined the Q&A following the panel discussion to offer insights to potential applicants. She urged applicants “if you are going to make a claim about biodegradability or compostability you need to explain the specific standards and conditions”. Acknowledging the need to support the pre-competitive space, she urged applicants from all disciplines to enter the competition. With just a few days to go, the time (to apply for the Microfiber Innovation Challenge) is now.