PrimaLoft is known around the world as a leading manufacturer of synthetic fibres – a key ingredient in the manufacture of insulated clothing, including puffy jackets, synthetic fleece clothing, and athletic wear. These fibres come with many advantages. First of all, they are much cheaper than traditional insulating materials such as wool or down. Second, they dry quickly and maintain their insulating properties when wet.
Despite these advantages, there is growing acknowledgement in the synthetic fibre industry that there are environmental costs associated with these plastic-based fibres. Typically, fibres are released from clothing items when they are washed and end up being washed down the drain and into the environment. Because they are made of polyester plastics, the fibres can take decades or centuries to break down – and they are likely to end up being eaten by fish long before that time, with unknown consequences.
Helping Nature Run its Course
PrimaLoft thinks it has the solution. Instead of replacing the plastic fibres with traditional materials, which would decrease performance and might increase environmental impacts, PrimaLoft has found a way to help them break down quickly in nature.
Part of the problem with plastic waste is that few organisms find nutritional value in the materials, meaning that they are slow to be broken down by living organisms. PrimaLoft hopes to address this problem by providing microorganisms with a source of readily available food. A side-product of a breakdown of the energy in that food is the concurrent breakdown of the plastic fibres.
Early experiments are promising – when placed in a simulated landfill, near-complete degradation had occurred by the end of the first year. Even in seawater, breakdown was relatively rapid, albeit slightly slower.
The Future of Synthetic Fibres
PrimaLoft has enough confidence in its solution, which it is marketing as PrimaLoft Bio, that it is pursuing new partnerships with clothing manufacturers, including L.L. Bean, and hopes to bring products featuring its new material to market by 2020.
According to PrimaLoft, a common concern with the technology is that clothing products made with it will not be durable. The company counters this worry by explaining that the products will only start to break down under extended exposure to organic matter and high humidity over a period of many months. It assures customers that products made with the material will last just as long as traditional products under normal use.
The company is now working out the best way to use its new material to produce non-insulating materials such as shells, liners, zippers, and buttons.