3) Elastane – Lycra – Spandex
As part of my forthcoming ‘Antarctic adventure‘, I am sharing my thoughts and insights while considering various aspects of sustainability for my planned journey. With respect to fabrics, two previous posts covered ‘oilskins‘ and ‘clothes that keep me warm‘, but there is much more to say about sustainable outdoor clothing.
So, here I’ll cover the wonderous synthetic fibre that provides elasticity to so many of our ‘outdoor gear’. Elastane, spandex and lycra are all names for the same thing, a fabric made of a long chain polymer, polyurethane, or more precisely, polyether-polyurea copolymer. Technicalities aside, elastane offers high breathability and moisture-wicking abilities and exceptionally high stretchability (6-7 times its length). It is in trousers and tops, tights and socks, all sorts of sports, cycling, swim and yoga wear, leggins and underwear – basically anything that is stretchy, comfortable and functional.
Here are some of the environmental snags of elastane:
- some potentially harmful chemicals are used its manufacture
- it is prone to ‘piling’, which means that bits are likely to break off or detatch during wear, tear and washing
- it doesn’t biodegrade
- it is more often than not mixed with other fabrics, making recycling difficult.
I had a closer look at my favourite merino base- and mid-layers and found that most were 100% wool, while a few were composed of 98% wool and 2% elastane. The same is true for a number of my trousers and t-shirts, even those made from bamboo or organic cotton.
Before I put elastane on my ‘avoid if possible’ list, I want to explore in more detail how it performs environmentally.
Ingredients and Manufacture
In the manufacture of elastane, macroglycol and diisocyanate monomer are combined to synthesise a prepolymer, which is then reacted with diamine acid to produce chains of polymers before spinning fibres and curing it into solid strands. The material is finished with magnesium stearate or another polymer to prevent fibres from sticking to each other (Hodakel 2020).
While that information may not be useful to the lay person, the upshot is that the manufacturing process is energy-intensive and involves chemicals potentially harmful to humans, whereby the occupational exposure to isocyanates is higher risk than exposure to people wearing the final product. Factories should operate a closed cycle that prevents these chemicals from release into the environment (Hodakel 2020). Whether that is guaranteed in all countries where synthetic fabrics are produced, is another matter…
65% of all fibres produced (~65 million tonnes in 2016) are synthetics (mainly polyester), and these are almost exclusively derived from petrochemicals, and elastane is no exception (Common Objective). Being petroleum-based, these fabrics are part of the fossil fuel economy. Claims of manufacturers that their fashion synthetics are ‘sustainable’ are rarely related to use of non-fossil, natural resources, but to use of recycled fibres – and even that is only a tiny proportion of the overall synthetic fabric production for clothing (0.01%).
The development of 13 different brands/types of naturally based synthetic fabrics is underway (Common Objective), but I’m not holding my breath for getting my hands on affordable, high-performance ‘bio-synthetics’ any time soon. Another question is whether their environmental impact when mixed with natural materials, such as wool and cotton, will be any more favourable than current mixed fabrics.
Environmental Impact during Use
Elastane does not biodegrade and will gradually accumulate in the environment. Just under 60% of the plastic waste ‘soup’ in our oceans is composed of non-biodegradable fibres (Hodakel 2020). In addition to careless waste management (see below), the tiny particles of polyester, nylon and elastane released from our clothing during the wash cycle are the ‘hidden pathway’ we are only relatively recently began to understand (University of Plymouth). The impact on the marine ecosystem in all oceans and on the foodchain, all the way from tiny plankton to our plates is something covered in more detail in recent scientific research (e.g. Botterell et al. 2019).
An important component of sustainable consumption is what we do with ‘stuff’ we don’t want anymore or when it is worn out. Typically, we throw it in the bin or we pass garnments to a charity collection for re-sale or recycling and hope that it will be dealt with appropriately. Typically, we don’t know what really happens to our waste (any waste) in detail. Landfill? Incineration? Recycling? Export as ‘resource’ (what happens in the receiving nation)?
A circular design strategy would include using recycled material in the manufacture of new fabrics and garnments. Mechanical recycling of fabrics is more commonly used than chemical recycling, which is still in its developmental state. But chopping up fabrics means that natural fibres are shortened and damaged during the shredding process and it is difficult to achieve high quality without combining recycled material with high proportions of virgin material (Design for Lognevity 2020).
Blended fabrics containing nylon, polyester and/or elastane in addition to natural fibres have, so far, presented a challenge for recycling, but some progress has been made recently in a quest for circular economy in the textile industry (e.g. RE:MIX, SÖDRA). The aims here are to separate natural fibres for re-use and to produce pre-production pellets of synthetic materials that can be used once more as raw material. It appears that ‘thermochemical’ and ‘enzymatic’ separation processis are being pursued, which, of course, means the employment of heat and chemicals…which means added cost and sustainability issues that have to be assessed using life cycle analysis.
While waiting for a better alternative, and discounting landfill for reasons that are beyond this blog post, for garnments containing elastane that cannot be re-used in some way, incineration may be the safest avenue for waste disposal.
Alternatives to Elastane
At the moment, ‘sustainable stretch fabrics’ are containing elements of recycled materials, rather than naturally stretchy fibers. Synthetics sourced from natural materials, such as sugars, rather than from petrochemicals, are not widely available yet, and they are still ‘synthetic’. So, I wonder whether they’d just be ‘bio-elastane’ – i.e. chemically identical to elastane, and hence would present the same waste management challenges as the existing materials…
I could decide to live without ‘stretch’ beyond the natural stretch that knitware offers. Quite a number of my clothes are doing just fine without elastane. But some functional kit, such as swim suits or gym leggins, won’t function quite the same without elastane (picture it).
- If it has to be elastic for functionality, then I will continue to accept mixed fibres. But I’ll make sure that I’ll buy garnment made from pure natural fibres where a blend is not required for functionality.
- I’ll go for longevity to avoid using resources than necessary. I aim to buy stuff that is high quality and lasts long.
- I’m looking after my stuff and I mend it – after all, outdoor gear is outdoor gear and not a tuxedo or ballgown! Who cares if there is a hole, lovingly darned, in a merino baselayer? Or a repair patch on a pair of waterproof over-trousers? I’ve even go my hiking boots re-soled (thank you Meindl!!!) after the cushioning layer disintegrated and the soles quite embarrasingly disconnected on a rainy day on Dartmoor – but that’s another story.
“Wavy Lines Lycra” by BuyandCreate.com is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Botterell ZLR et al. 2019. Bioavailability and effects of microplastics on marine zooplankton: A review. Environmental Pollution. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2018.10.065 [accessed 23/02/2020]
Common Objective. Synthetics & Sustainable Synthetics: Global Production. Commonobjective.co. https://www.commonobjective.co/article/synthetics-sustainable-synthetics-global-production [accessed 01/03/2020]
Design for Longevity. Close the Loop – Design for Longevity. desingforlongevity.com, a blog site advocating circular economy. https://designforlongevity.com [accessed 23/02/2020]
Hodakel B. 2020. What is elastane fabric: properties, how its made and where. Sewport – a service company to apparel manufacturers. https://sewport.com/fabrics-directory/elastane-fabric [accessed 23/02/2020]
RE:MIX. 2019. Separation and recycling of textile waste fiber blends. http://mistrafuturefashion.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/ReMix_Report.pdf
SÖDRA. A sweater can become a sweater again. SÖDRA is an association of forest owners in Sweden, who are into R&D (research and development) of sustainable solutions. https://www.sodra.com/en/pulp/news-oncemore/once-more-news-archive/discovery–a-sweater-can-become-a-sweater-again/ [accessed 23/02/2020]
Univeristy of Plymouth. 2016. Washing clothes releases thousands of microplastic particles into environment. University of Plymouth Website referring to groundbreaking research undertaken by Prof. Richard Thompson. https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/news/washing-clothes-releases-thousands-of-microplastic-particles-into-environment-study-shows [accessed 23/02/2020]