New Research Looking to Turn Fabric into Fuel, Keep Microfibers Out of Water

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Image Credit: Japan Airlines

We’ve seen a rash of textile-recycling schemes emerge of late — in which the textiles in question may become new garments, but for the most part they remain, well, fabrics. But in what may be the first fabric-to-fuel program we’ve heard of, Japan Airlines — which is already working to roll out sustainable aviation biofuel for flights during the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo — is now working to turn used clothing into jet fuel, in partnership with Japan Environmental Planning (Jeplan) and Tokyo’s Green Earth Institute. The organizations have teamed up to create a collaborative council that could pilot the alternative energy source by as early as 2020.

In October 2015, Jeplan founder Michihiko Iwamota introduced a technology to create bioethanol from cast-off T-shirts and denim jeans, using fermentation to break down the sugars contained in cotton into alcohols. If all goes well with test flights planned to start in 2020, the company aims to establish the first commercial fuel plant by 2030.

“I totally believed that in the future, there would be a car that runs on garbage,” said Iwamoto, referring to the trash-powered time machine from Back to the Future II. “But years went by, and that didn’t happen. So I thought I’d develop it.”

Although addressing a large energy source, 100 tons of cotton yields only around 10 kiloliters of fuel, or roughly 2,641 gallons (a commercial airliner uses about 1 gallon of fuel every second). As Nikkei Asian Review points out, even if all the cotton consumed in Japan were used in fuel production, this would give only 70,000 kl or so annually — less than 1 percent of Japan’s jet fuel usage. But since the technology can also be applied to other types of waste, including paper, clothing may only be the beginning.


Meanwhile, Mistra Future Fashion, a Swedish research program for sustainable fashion, has launched an investigation into the relationship between fabric properties and the shedding of microplastics from polyester fabrics. The company aims to deliver a framework for the construction and care of polyester fabrics in order to minimize microplastic shedding to improve environmental performance and strengthen global competitiveness.

Eunomia Research & Consulting has estimated that 190 thousand tons of microplastics from textiles enter the world’s marine ecosystem each year. According to the Plastic Soup Foundation (PSF) – which earlier this year teamed up with G-Star to call on the textile and washing machine industries to design solutions to eliminate ocean microfiber pollution – the machine-washing of clothes is a big source of plastic pollution in oceans, with small plastic fibers shed by synthetic garments being washed through water treatment plants into waterways, which can also enter the food chain, as fish and other marine organisms can mistake these fibers for food.

Research carried out by the campaign ‘Mermaids Ocean Clean Wash’ for G-Star suggests that polyester, acrylic and nylon items are the biggest culprits, with an acrylic scarf shedding 300,000 fibers per wash and a polyester fleece jacket losing almost a million fibers every time it is washed.

The investigation will be conducted in spring 2017 in partnership with Boob Design,Filippa K and H&M, and the findings could be used for designing a subsequent, larger research project surrounding the microplastics problem.

“Only a strong alliance of dedicated stakeholders around the world can turn the tide,” said Frouke Bruinsma, Corporate Responsibility Director at G-Star. “Everyone is welcome to join us.”

*This story first appeared on Sustainable Brands

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