There is an urgent need to find replacements for the predominantly fossil-based fibers in the fashion industry through solutions such as biosynthetics from renewable sources. PHA polymers represent an exciting, yet challenging solution for reducing carbon emissions in the fashion industry.
The fashion industry accounts for around 4 % of global greenhouse gas emissions. Polyester fiber is one of the most widely used in the fashion industry making up 52 % of global fiber production. The production of virgin fossil-based polyester fibers is responsible for increased greenhouse gas emissions and their use results in the release of microplastics into the natural environment. Under the umbrella of the Renewable Carbon Framework initiated by nova-Institute, Hürth/Germany, biosynthetics made from renewable sources, such as agricultural byproducts, provide a solution to reduce plastic production and, ultimately, a brand’s overarching carbon footprint. In particular, polyhydroxyalkanoate or PHA polymers provide a bio-based, marine and soil compostable solution to fossil-fuel derived polyester fibers, and could be a possible holy grail to decarbonizing the fashion industry.
Therefore, Fashion for Good, Amsterdam/Netherlands, has launched the Renewable Carbon Textiles Project, bringing together a pioneering consortium to accelerate the development of PHA polymer fibers – a promising biosynthetic alternative to fossil-based fibers with the potential to reduce carbon emissions in the fashion supply chain.
The project brings together key industry players to investigate, test and validate the solutions provided by innovators in the PHA polymer space. With catalytic funding provided by Laudes Foundation (formerly C&A Foundation), Zug/Switzerland, collaborating partners providing industry expertise and financial support. Participating innovators contribute their solutions to validate their potential, providing insights to scale the industry in the long term.
The collaboration with partner brands like Bestseller, Norrøna, PVH Corp. (parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger), and Gore, participating in testing and developing output materials, as well as providing their technical expertise and industry insights, will enable the evaluation of the suitability of PHA polymers, accelerate fiber development and production, and determine scalability in the traditional supply chain. The end-of-use pathways for the fibers will be evaluated through third-party degradation and recyclability testing, to ensure circularity.
Bio Craft Innovation Pvt. Ltd., Noida/India, Full Cycle Bioplastics, San Jose, CA/USA, and Newlight Technologies, Inc., Huntington Beach, CA/USA, leading innovators in the field of biopolymers, join the project applying their expertise in biology, chemistry and engineering to not only produce the fibers, but also further develop fiber melt-spinning, a traditionally challenging, yet critical step in PHA production. Until now, commercial melt-spinning trials have not used PHA polymers. As such, there are still some manufacturing challenges and additional technical assessments needed to compare and evaluate the different polymers.
This project focuses on validating the technical feasibility of the output, working with the Nonwovens Innovation & Research Institute (NIRI), Leeds/UK, to run the melt spinning trials. This allows for a comparative evaluation which can provide key learnings on how to best support and bring these technologies to scale.
Alongside the technical feasibility study, the project includes a range of degradation testing that will be conducted by Organic Waste Systems (OWS) NV, Gent/Belgium. Leading in biodegradability, compostability and ecotoxicity testing, OWS will run tests in marine, soil, freshwater and landfill environments in mid 2022 to assess the biochemical properties of the fibers and whether they break down in these environments.
PHAs belong to an emerging class of bio-based, marine and soil compostable polymers. They are produced through a fermentation process using various renewable carbon-based feedstock, including organic food waste, methane gas and captured CO2. PHA have a wide range of chemical, thermal and mechanical properties and can be engineered to have similar performance characteristics as conventional synthetic fibers. PHA has been used to make films and packaging products but so far there have been limited fiber applications. Alongside this, only a handful of companies currently produce PHA meaning supply is limited.
Emphasis is placed on using feedstock that do not directly compete with food and feed crops, diverting biological feedstock from landfill and utilizing waste gases in the production of their fibers. Full Cycle Bioplastics use inedible food waste whilst Newlight’s use of carbon capture technology transforms carbon from greenhouse gases into PHA biopolymers. Bio craft Innovation produces a blended PHA composite using biomass from bamboo production. Material for fiber production will be provided by each of these innovators and they will demonstrate that their product can meet industry requirements in both quality and quantity needed for scalable production.
In the coming months, the innovators will begin developing their individual PHA formulations, which will be shipped to NIRI for melt-spinning trials. Once the trials are complete, environmental degradation testing will commence. At project completion, aimed at the end of 2022 – barring impact from the on-going Covid-19 pandemic, the results from the project will be published by Fashion for Good in a report which will be available to the public.
This article appeared in Chemical Fibers International 3/2021