I’m wearing spandex right now. No, I’m not at my computer in an Olympic leotard or even Lululemon athleisure. I’m wearing Levi’s jeans, and though they are almost all cotton, they have about 3% spandex, a kind of plastic, woven into them. The unfortunate fact that they have plastic in them prevents them from being recyclable.
Spandex, also known as elastane, is one of the synthetic fibers—like rayon, polyester and nylon—that are used to strengthen or alter natural fibers.. They are all made from fossil fuels, and require heavy-duty chemicals such as sulfuric acid, formaldehyde, dimethylformamide, dimethylacetamide and dimethyl sulfoxide. These and other chemicals that are used are suspected of all kinds of mayhem: cancer, liver damage, skin irritation and dizziness. Spandex also requires synthetic dyes, which also produce harmful pollutants. That makes my jeans a triple threat: a health hazard, an agent of climate change and a polluter of the world’s water supply.
But wait, it gets worse!
When textiles with plastics in them are washed, and even when they’re just worn, they shed microplastics. In addition to being toxic and potentially carcinogenic for humans, when microplastics end up in the ocean (which they do), they act as a magnet for organic pollutants like pesticides, and then these poisonous pellets are eaten by fish. Welcome to the food chain, yoga pants! Eventually we end up eating these same microplastics, and what exactly that does to us we’re not sure yet. A very recent study suggests a correlation between irritable bowel syndrome and the amount of microplastics found in peoples’ feces. Aside: Do we really need scientists scouring excrement to confirm that eating microplastics is bad for us? I guess we do …
Levi’s has made some overtures toward sustainability and circularity. They partnered with Blue Jeans Go Green, a non-profit founded by Cotton Incorporated (think, “the fabric of our lives”), and offered $20 off their next purchase to people who return their jeans to bins placed in retail outlets throughout the country. Those jeans are then shredded and used in other products, like insulation. That falls short of the idea of circularity—but, the logic goes, downcycling is better than the dump.
In an even more impressive display of technology, Levi’s partnered with a Swedish company called Renewcell, which can take post-consumer denim and mix it with a cellulose pulp to make a truly-recycled pair of jeans. However, this is only a sliver of the jeans they are producing, and it requires the post -consumer denim to be 100% cotton.
And that is the most important detail. Recycling clothing would be much simpler if we relied exclusively on natural fibers. Cotton, wool, flax (linen), hemp and silk are all biodegradable.
Our cover story demonstrates how resourceful our community is and what a sustainable textile industry could look like.
The industry could make local efforts so much easier if international standards or legislation was implemented to make synthetic fibers illegal, rather than relying on half-measures to appear sustainable.
It’s time we return to natural fibers and ban plastic pants.