How Nature-Inspired Material Solutions Will Halt Microplastic Pollution

by Devin Nieusma | Originally published on the Biomimicry Institute

How often do you think about the materials that are in your clothing?

When my team at Conservation X Labs first set out to design a new innovation competition to combat microplastic pollution, I hardly ever gave the materials in my clothing a second thought. But since we first began our dive into understanding the best opportunities to stop microplastics at the source, it is something I think about every day.

My team quickly learned about the largest source of primary microplastic pollution: microfiber shedding from synthetic textiles. Months of extensive research and expert interviews led us to the conclusion that upstream, biodegradable textiles and innovative closed-loop manufacturing processes are necessary to halt shedding at its source. After reading the Biomimicry Institute’s Nature of Fashion report, our teams joined forces on the Microfiber Innovation Challenge to encourage nature-inspired solutions for plastic microfiber pollution.

The Facts about Plastic Microfiber Shedding

Almost all of our textiles shed microfibers: through the production process, laundering, and daily wear-and-tear. Synthetic fibers, which comprised 63% of global textile production in 2019, pose a particular risk as plastic fiber fragments persist in the environment. So where do those particles go? Pretty much everywhere. Every year, about two million tons of microfibers flood our oceans and have even been discovered in the Marianas Trench — the deepest oceanic trench on Earth . Microfibers are found in agricultural sludge, our drinking water, and our air. What’s more, plastics attract and concentrate toxic chemicals like persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which became infamous in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

While the full health effects are not yet understood by scientists, it is clear that humans ingest microplastics and that many are small enough to cross cell membranes including the blood–brain barrier and the placenta. We need to ensure that the fibers that do escape do not persist in the environment, impacting biodiversity and human health.

A Future Without Plastic Microfiber Pollution

What would a regenerative and microplastic-free textile system look like? The Biomimicry Institute’s Nature of Fashion report points to potential solutions, and a vision that helped inspire the Microfiber Innovation Challenge. As stated in the report: “The first thing we must learn from nature is how to design for decomposition and dispersal.” Nature can serve as an inspiration for innovators exploring sustainable materials and manufacturing processes, aligning with both sub-challenges of the competition:

  1. Prevent: The Prevent sub-challenge focuses on supporting improved textile manufacturing processes to decrease microfiber shedding. The Biomimicry Institute emphasizes the importance of situating manufacture not just within material and technical loops, but the broader natural system. Nature-inspired manufacture would consider the holistic impacts of textiles, not just at the point of production but in the use and disposal phases as well. Potential intervention points include new efficient weaving equipment; sustainable coatings, dyes, and fabric treatments that prevent shedding; and circular systems that prevent microfiber shed from escaping into the local environment.
  2. Replace: The Replace sub-challenge aims to support alternative materials (to traditional plastic-based textiles) that are designed to biodegrade within natural environments. The Nature of Fashion report describes a lack of diversity in textile feedstocks and the threat this poses to the industry’s resilience. Like ecosystems, fashion needs biodiversity. The Replace sub-challenge encourages a variety of new feedstocks that work within planetary boundaries of resource use and are designed for non-harmful dispersion, given that it is impossible to totally prevent microfiber escape.

Opportunities for Innovation

As we have discovered through the process of forming cross-sector partnerships for the Microfiber Innovation Challenge coalition, the drive for sustainable, plastic fiber-free textile production is not simply altruistic. There are enormous market opportunities in developing upstream solutions. The Nature of Fashion report emphasizes this, highlighting for example the need for upgraded equipment designed with nature to improve efficiency and able to work with next-generation textile feedstocks. “Somewhere between the 200-year-old cotton gin and 3D printed footwear is a real market need for working with various feedstocks.”

One of the major selling points of synthetic fibers is their ability to be designed and manipulated for different properties depending on the application, whether that’s athletic wear or trendy daily wear. There will likely need to be a variety of replacement textiles that meet various end-product needs in order to stop the plastic tap. There is an enormous market for sustainable bio-based textiles that match the performance capabilities–the durability, flexibility, water resistance, water wicking, ability to intake dyes, etc.–of plastic-based textiles like nylon, polyester, and acrylic.

The Biomimicry Institute identified three sources of compostable fibers that they believe will comprise the new textiles economy: natural fibers, cellulosic feedstocks, and fermentation products. What has become clear to us over the course of designing and running our work around microfiber pollution is that there is room and a market for all kinds of solutions.

The Challenge

The Microfiber Innovation Challenge, funded by the Flotilla Foundation and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, will award $650,000 to innovators with solutions to prevent and replace plastic in our clothing and our textiles. This work is supported by a coalition of partners including the Biomimicry Institute, Material Innovation Initiative, Under Armour, and The North Face, who are working with Conservation X Labs to recruit applicants, evaluate solutions, and support promising innovations.

Megan Schuknecht, Senior Biomimicry Professional at the Biomimicry Institute, spoke to the importance of upstream solutions at the launch of the Challenge: “It’s critical that we focus on upstream solutions… anything that we create or bring into the textile system that is not biocompatible ultimately is going to leak out into the biosphere.”

Conservation X Labs is focused on incentivizing solutions at or beyond the prototype stage that address microfiber pollution upstream in the value chain. We encourage all innovators — anyone, from anywhere — working on solutions that meet the Challenge criteria to apply before the deadline on June 25, 2021, and join us in our effort to transform the future of conservation.

Since designing an aquaponics system in high school, Devin Nieusma has been passionate about developing nature-inspired technology for conservation. At Conservation X Labs, she helps design and run innovation competitions, such as the Microfiber Innovation Challenge, to address the underlying drivers of extinction.

The Biomimicry Institute empowers people to create nature-inspired solutions for a healthy planet. www.biomimicry.org