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This microplastic biodegrades instead of sitting around for hundreds of years

PrimaLoft, which makes the microfiber insulation that fills jackets made by brands like L.L. Bean, has made a big advance in the sustainability of its materials.

This microplastic biodegrades instead of sitting around for hundreds of years
[Photo: courtesy Primaloft]

When you’re picturing the problem of plastic pollution in our oceans, you might imagine water filled with plastic water bottles or straws. But another source of plastic in water is clothing: A fleece jacket, for example, can shed hundreds of thousands of tiny fibers every time it’s washed. Those synthetic fibers often make their way through drains and wastewater plants into waterways, where fish can eat them.

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PrimaLoft, the company known for making microfiber insulation that fills jackets made by brands like L.L. Bean, has spent the last five years working on an alternative. Its new insulation is still synthetic–made from 100% recycled polyester–but if the material ends up in a landfill, unlike other plastic, it will biodegrade relatively quickly. The same is true if the material ends up in the ocean.

[Photo: courtesy PrimaLoft]

The company started researching the problem in 2014. “We were just starting to hear concern around microplastics in the ocean,” says Mike Joyce, president and CEO of PrimaLoft. At the time, various brands were discussing possible solutions, including working with companies that make washers and dryers to create filters to catch fibers and working with the government to try to pass laws to limit fiber loss. But they realized that process would take time, and even if regulations passed in the U.S., a jacket might eventually be discarded in another part of the world.

“What we looked at in a pragmatic way is, let’s assume by some shape or form material gets into the environment, in our waterways or oceans or landfills,” he says. “Then what can we do as a company to help solve that?”

[Photo: courtesy PrimaLoft]
Plastic usually biodegrades at an incredibly slow rate, over hundreds of years. But PrimaLoft’s materials scientists spent two years coming up with a chemistry that works differently, and then spent more time making their own tiny fibers–which are each 1/50th the size of a strand of hair–out of that material. For the last 500 or so days, they’ve been testing the material in an “accelerated landfill” (where chemical processes help bacteria break down the waste) and a simulation of the ocean to see how quickly it decomposes.

The technology is proprietary, but essentially the company has added a food source for microorganisms present in landfills or water to the polyester. “The microorganisms are attracted to the material and they feed off it, and as they feed off it, they’re eating the food we’re giving them, but they’re also degrading the polyester at the same time,” says Joyce. In landfill tests, the materials reached near complete biodegradation in around a year, and significantly biodegraded in a marine environment. That’s not a complete solution–if the material ends up in the ocean, a fish might still eat it as it waits to biodegrade. But it’s a step above standard plastic. “The material is not going to be sitting there for thousands of years building up on the ocean floor,” he says. (The material only degrades under certain conditions, so a jacket filled with it will be durable for years.)

The company is working with a handful of brands, including L.L. Bean, that plan to bring jackets to market with the new stuffing in 2020. It’s also working with brands to help them use the same technology on other parts of a jacket, like a synthetic lining or shell. “We’re grabbing a few key partners and we’re actually teaching them our technology so they can produce shells and liners, because what we think that we really need to offer the industry is a total solution,” he says. “Here’s your insulation, here’s your shell, here’s your liner, here’s your zipper, here’s your buttons–here’s everything you need to put together a technical piece.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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