How can the latest design and technology help to create wear without waste? And what can we all do to reduce the impact of throwaway fashion?
Plastic from plants
The flirty underskirts of this designer dress are made from ‘Ingeo’ – a plastic called polylactic acid (PLA) that’s similar to polyester. But there’s one very important difference. Most plastics, including polyester, are made from oil, but PLA is made from plants such as corn, wheat, sugar beet or sugar cane.
Plant sources are renewable – they can be replaced as quickly as we use them – giving PLA a big advantage over oil-based plastics.
Corn on the catwalk
So just how do you get from an ear of corn to a designer dress?
Once harvested, the corn kernels are ground and cooked. This releases the starch stored within and breaks it down into sugar. Micro-organisms convert the sugar into lactic acid. Then, many single molecules of lactic acid are joined together in a chemical reaction to form a plastic polymer: polylactic acid (PLA).
This plastic could become many things, such as a plastic packaging film, or it could be spun into fibre for clothes. All you’ll need then is a designer to make you a dress out of it!
Another advantage of PLA is that it’s fully biodegradable, easily breaking down into compost under the right conditions. John Williams, an expert in renewable materials, believes that PLA could provide a solution to some of our waste problems:
‘PLA is the first 100% bio-based plastic on the block. It won’t break down if you throw it on your compost heap at home – but it biodegrades nicely in large industrial composting facilities. At the moment, the UK doesn’t have many of these facilities, but hopefully this is set to change in the next few years.’
Closing the loop
PLA can also be recycled to make it good as new. Galactic, a Belgian company, has developed a chemical method where waste PLA is cleaned and shredded and converted back to individual units of lactic acid. Anything that has contaminated the PLA is removed using a range of techniques. The lactic acid units are rejoined to produce pure PLA polymer, ready for use.
Recycling back to good-as-new condition is called ‘closed-loop recycling’. It means we can make new products an infinite number of times without creating waste or using up the Earth’s precious resources.
From waste to wear
Some people are concerned about using food crops such as corn to make PLA. But John Williams explains that PLA can also be made out of waste materials:
‘PLA can be made out of any sugar or starch source. American companies use corn to make PLA because the American West has a huge excess of the stuff. In China they use waste rice starch to make PLA, and in India waste molasses.
‘We need to change the way we view waste, seeing it as a useful raw material, rather than as something to be buried in the ground. I really think that PLA could be part of the answer to our waste problems.’