guide to synthetic fibers — part 2, petroleum alternatives

Is your clothing contributing to non-biodegradable plastic waste?

What are petroleum based
fibers and what can be used to replace them?

Petroleum based fibers are a type of synthetic fiber that is made from petroleum. Petroleum fibers are exactly like plastic bags and other disposable plastics in that they are non-biodegradable. They end up in landfills and our oceans. Maybe it’s because they are in our clothes and don’t feel like plastic we forget they have the same environmental implications.

If you are working to reduce your plastic consumption, and we hope you are, not buying petroleum-based fibers should be on your list of things to do! The rest of this article will help give you alternative options to look out for.

NYLON

Nylon was the very first synthetic fiber ever created. It debuted at the 1939 World’s Fair alongside color photography, air conditioning, and the TV! Before the invention of nylon, women’s stockings were made out of silk which ran easily or wool which was hot and scratchy. Nylon quickly replaced silk and wool because of its “strong as steel, fine as a spider’s web” characteristics. In the first year of sales, over 64 million nylon stockings were sold!

During WWII stocking production was put on hold to make parachutes for the war. Nylon was a hit both overseas and at home, and synthetic petroleum based fabrics were here to stay.

Today, nylon is not nearly as popular as it once was, and demand has steadily been decreasing. It is mostly used in swimwear, luggage, added to performance wear for strength and durability, and of course in nylon stockings.

Unfortunately, because of nylons strong and lightweight engineered characteristics it is a hard fiber to replace with natural options. There are alternative options out there, but they do not perform as well. Cotton swimsuits start to fall apart when exposed to too much chlorine, become heavy when wet, and tend to lose their shape when wet. Luggage pieces made of natural fibers like cotton or hemp are not as strong and tend to fray and rip easier than their nylon competitors. If you prefer the performance of nylon, what options do you really have?

A popular eco-friendly option is recycled nylon. Econyl is a well known company that uses plastic trash like fishing nets and carpeting to create nylon fiber for clothing. The process starts by collecting plastic waste, the waste is then cleaned and broken down into tiny pieces. The small plastic pieces are treated with chemicals in a depolymerization process that turns plastic back into a substance that is almost identical to raw fossil fuel. This new substance is then made into nylon using the same process as traditional nylon manufacturing. Recycling technology like this is cleaning up the oceans, and can be done over and over again to create recycle and re-recycled fibers.

POLYESTER

Polyester is the most popular synthetic fiber on the planet. It is estimated that by the year 2020 the demand for polyester fiber will be almost 100 million metric tons a year. Polyester is used in everything from athletic wear to high fashion pieces, it’s extremely low cost and flexibility is particularly taken advantage of in the fast fashion industry. Thankfully there are quite a few alternatives to polyester, you just need to know what it is you’re looking for.

POLYESTER IN FASHION: Polyester offers soft drapey CHEAP, CHEAP, CHEAP, fabrics. We recommend opting for cotton/silk blends instead (especially organic). But, if cotton/silk isn’t cutting it for you, we suggest trying to pick a cellulosic fiber like Modal, Tencel, or Lyocell instead.

POLYESTER IN ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE WEAR: Check out the labels in your workout clothes, we are willing to bet that the overwhelming majority of them are made from polyester. Different polyesters and blends have been engineered to create the ultimate performance wear, their secret is their ability to wick moisture away from the body to keep you cool and dry. These performance polyesters are marketed as the magic ingredient you need to take you from amateur to Olympic contender. But, are they all they are cracked up to be?

Today there are a bunch of new, lesser known technologies being used on natural fibers, and they are set to compete with the performance of polyester.

First, there are TREATED COTTON OPTIONS. For cotton that wicks try Cotton Incorporated’s WICKING WINDOWS. WICKING WINDOWS is a fabric finishing treatment that is printed on to the back of cotton fabricS. The treatment pulls moisture from the body and moves it towards the surface of the fabric where it can easily evaporate into the air to keep you cool and dry.

Cotton Inc. also created TransDry cotton yarns. These yarns are treated to become water repellent. The yarns can then be knit into fabric strategically (the same way polyester yarns are) to create ultimate performance fabrics that move moisture away from the body. WICKING WINDOWs and TransDry both claim to wick as well if not better than synthetic options.

WOOL is a new option being explored to compete with polyester in the athletic market. Many of you are probably thinking the last thing you want to work out in is a heavy, scratchy wool sweater. But, did you know wool has naturally amazing water resistant properties, moisture wicking properties, and is naturally odor resistant? Through the process of chlorination the micro scales on wool fibers (what make it itchy) can be removed to create soft to the touch fabrics with the same amazing natural properties as non-treated wool. Today, wool fibers and yarns are being strategically blended with other fibers to create lightweight performance wear.

Remember, it is always important to do you your research on these types of companies and make sure the animals supplying the wool are being humanely cared for.

Lastly, another recommended alternative is RECYCLED POLYESTER. Recycling polyester uses a similar process as nylon. The most popular and widely used recycled polyester being currently comes from post-consumer plastic bottles. The bottles are ground into PET flakes and then processed into polyester fibers.

At virtue + vice we work with the company Repreve to source our recycled polyester fabrics.

RECYCLED FIBERS — NO PROCESS IS PERFECT

We love the idea of cleaning up the oceans, reducing landfills, and taking waste and creating something new- but, it is important to note that no process is perfect. The best way to stop pollution is to not buy these products at all. Recycling technology has its downsides too. Watch this video from The Story of Stuff Project to learn about how recycled and synthetic fabric ends up back in the oceans in a micro way that is adding up to create huge problems. At virtue + vice, we use recycled poly because we think that for now it is one of the better options out there, but with that being said we are always looking for new technologies and better options for the environment.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BqkekY5t7KY

ACRYLIC

SPANDEX/LYCRA/ELASTANE

Like Tencel and Lyocell, Spandex and Lycra are the branded version of elastane. Spandex, Lycra, and elastane are all the same thing. Elastane is known for its stretch. It’s in our shirts, jeans, leggings, almost everything because it adds movement and comfort to our clothes. Elastane is what allows us to move in our clothing freely without having them stretch out and get baggy. What other comfort adding fiber options are there?

Invista, the owners of LYCRA, have developed a new primarily bio-based elastic that is made from 70% dextrose sugar derived from corn. The new fiber is coined LYCRA T162R. This fiber is relatively new to the market, and we hope to see more brands using it in the future.

Take a screen shot to refer back to this handy cheat sheet the next time your clothing shopping and want to make a positive environmental impact!

Do you know of any alternatives to petroleum-based fibers we might have forgotten about? Tell us about them in the comments section!