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Issue 01/2023

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Applications It’s not

Applications It’s not easy going circular – but the fashion industry can’t afford not to They’re durable, versatile, easy to make, and most critically, cheap for manufacturers and consumers alike: plastics, the material usually made from petroleum, and now the world’s most dominant textile fibre. to fully decompose naturally, choking our environmental surroundings in much the same way as discarded synthetic products [3]. And consumers tend to replace their shoes once every two years, on average. That’s a lot of garbage piling up. Unfortunately, due to its use of these plastics and other polluting materials, the fashion industry has been responsible for much of the now nearly 400 million annual tonnes of plastic produced worldwide [1, 2]. Without real plans for systemic change, the industry will never truly be eco-friendly. That’s why all parties up and down the fashion industry’s value chain need to build end-of-life (EOL) solutions into their products to create a system that minimizes pollution. That means thinking circularly, not linearly. Making circular products is just half the battle The problem with linear economic models is a manufacturer’s relationship with its products end when it is purchased. Fashion items are usually designed with nextto-no regard for their EOL – the point at which consumers throw them away and they either pile up in landfills or get incinerated, seeping toxins into our air, land, and seas. But consumers increasingly demand that the brands they patronize act to minimize their footprint, and many fashion companies are now appealing to consumers’ environmental sensibilities by using buzzwords like natural, organic, or biodegradable – words that make customers feel better about their purchases. But for many consumers, it’s hard to know whether a fashion product is truly circular or just marketed as such. For example, natural and sustainably sourced rubber, which is used by some footwear brands, does indeed have the capacity to biodegrade, and thus sounds like a great option. But in reality, it takes some 80 years for the material While the fashion industry uses an extensive range of materials, and there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to managing all consumer-end waste – recycling isn’t always the most appropriate option – the most sustainable solutions are those that take both the product and regional aspects into account. A circular model – Balena’s biodegradable shoe To address this prolonged decomposition process and pollution build-up, Balena has designed durable footwear made of compostable plastics that can break down in a matter of months (rather than decades) in the finetuned environments of industrial composting facilities. But this circular model needs a take-back scheme in order to work – which is why Balena is preparing to implement a system that will incentivize customers to return their worn-out compostable BioCir Slides in exchange for a discount on their next pair. For this to work, brands must shift their operational frameworks from linear to circular – environmental benefits notwithstanding, it’s a great way to create and retain personal and long-lasting relationships with consumers, a key marketing tool in the 21 st century. In short, this is a win-win-win: compostable products will benefit brands, their customers, and the Earth, all at once. Now you might ask: why invest so heavily in composting when you could rely on recycling? While recycling has its place in certain industries like paper and aluminium, it’s not as straightforward when it comes to plastic, namely because there are many different types that each requires its own specific set of recycling processes. 30 bioplastics MAGAZINE [01/23] Vol. 18

Plastic recycling is a good solution when there are clean material streams without contaminations (and one kind of plastic is often a contamination for another due to their individual properties). Shoes, for example, are made from a variety of different plastics, as many as ten in some brands. And even if each of those plastic materials were recyclable at their EOL stage, disassembling and separating them is time-consuming, expensive, and far from scalable. Alternatively, if shoes are made from multiple types of compostable materials, they can be shredded together and composted without the need for disassembly. What ties this whole circular network together is cooperation up and down the value chain. Throughout the last two years, Balena has been testing the supportive framework for industrial composting with a few interested facilities which have recognized the larger profit potential beyond their usual services. Not only can these facilities be chosen locally according to businesses’ geographical locations, but their compost status can be monitored and disclosed to consumers with full transparency. Social science meets material science It’s important to remember that economic circularity and its wealth of revenue potential wouldn’t be possible without products that lend themselves to the model. More and more factories, for instance, are taking advantage of this circularity by using another’s waste as its raw material. But in the case of modern plastic-woven fashion products, the EOL opportunities are limited to hand-me-downs, donations, or the dump – and most often it’s the latter. This is where material science comes in. Balena’s compostable slip-ons are currently on their way to becoming 100 % biobased, without relying on food sources as feedstock. The challenge lies in modifying and binding natural and scalable ingredients with biodegradable polymers to create an injectable material that’s not only soft, smooth, comfortable, and durable, but also compostable. Fortunately, Balena’s flagship material takes just a few months to fully biodegrade, satisfying the ISO 14855 test standard requiring compostable plastic materials to be 90 % aerobically biodegraded within 180 days. And it will soon fulfil EN 13432, the European standard that requires the material to break down after 12 weeks and completely biodegrade within six months. Fashionably sustainable Going circular is an enormous undertaking for any industry, and it won’t be accomplished by taking greenwashed shortcuts. Rather, it will require wholesale cooperation from industry players, regulators, and consumers alike. Balena is doing its part in the area of footwear and beyond, but many more approaches will be needed to reverse the rest of the industry’s climate impacts. In short, for the fashion industry to truly change its stripes and plaids, it needs to establish fully circular systems in order to turn sustainability itself into the next big fashion trend. [1] [2] [3] By: David Roubach CEO of Balena Tel Aviv, Israel Applications bioplastics MAGAZINE [01/23] Vol. 18 31

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