Fast fashion pollution solutions?

With a truckload worth of clothes being chucked away every second, fast fashion is a world-leading polluter
17 June 2022

Interview with 

Maghan McDowell, Vogue Business & Chris Rinke, University of Queensland


For some people, one of the signs that summer has well and truly arrived is the start of the new series of hit reality TV show Love Island. Another couple of months worth of the usual sun, secrecy and scandal commenced last week, but with an added twist. Instead of being kitted out in clothes from fast fashion brands, this year’s contestants are wearing garments garnered from eBay, meaning that they are all second hand. The show has previously signed brand deals with fashion companies with a pile them high and sell them cheap strategy, which has catastrophic consequences for the environment. As fast fashion brands have shrugged off their Covid slump and begun reaping the rewards from customers with an insatiable desire for new things to wear, environmentalists are extremely concerned about the already massive problem of waste in the fashion industry. James Tytko with this report...

James - Synthetic polymers like nylon, polyester and polystyrene are very durable materials, and that's what makes them so useful in manufacturing cheap clothes. But it also leaves us with a big problem when we are done wearing them. These long polymer chains are difficult to break down and if they end up in landfill, which an entire rubbish truck full of clothes do every second, they degrade extremely slowly. So what can we do about the problem? Well, one option is to try and find a quicker way to degrade the microplastics present in clothes headed for landfill. Research from the University of Queensland in Australia has been observing the ability of the larvae of darkling Beatles, dubbed "super worms", to eat their way through polystyrene, survive on it and even gain weight. I spoke to Dr. Chris Rinke about how studying these tiny creatures can help us to find the solution to the issue of plastic pollution...

Chris R - The way we understand it is that the larvae, known as superworms, eat the polystyrene and mechanically degrades it into smaller particles. Ingests it.

James - By mechanical degradation, do you mean chewing?

Chris R - Yeah. The worm does the chewing, exactly (insect larvae very good mouth parts) and then feeds it to its microbiome, the bacteria in the gut. We were especially interested in those bacteria and we found several encoded enzymes for the degradation of polystyrene and then also for styrene, which is a breakdown product of polystyrene.

James - And now you've observed this going on, what's the potential? What's the long term plan here? Are we going to have maybe massive farms full of worms breaking down polystyrene?

Chris R - We really want to scale that process and what we think actually scales way better is if we focus on the enzymes in the gut. We know of some of them, we know what kind of enzymes we are looking for, we have the sequences, but the next step is we really have to prove in the test tube that those enzymes are degrading the polystyrene, and especially under what conditions they're doing it.

James - So far today, we've been talking about polystyrene and that's what you've been studying with the larvae. Is there potential, do you think for what you're coming to understand here, to be applicable to other plastics? Other thermoplastics? Other polymers? Some of the bigger polluters are materials like polyester and nylon.

Chris R - You mentioned polyester, right? That's a term for a category of synthetic polymers that contain a functional ester group. And there are actually enzymes out there, natural enzymes, that can target this ester group. So even some of the enzymes we found in the polystyrene-degrading super worms, they actually act later in the process and they can attack this ester group.

James - Using naturally occurring enzymes to biodegrade synthetic plastic is certainly a promising field in trying to mitigate the fast fashion waste problem, but it could take some years for an overhaul of the way we treat plastic waste to fully take shape. Instead, what we may be able to do more quickly is change people's habits when it comes to consuming fashion, simply buying fewer items or wearing pre-loved clothes are some of the most obvious ways, but a new branch of the fashion industry, which seeks to keep up with the insatiable demand of fast fashion consumers without harming the planet is developing. I spoke to Maghan McDowell, senior innovation editor at Vogue business magazine...

Maghan - It's a really complex problem to solve, but one that has been really interesting to cover in my career, and in the past three years has been this idea of digital fashion; designing digitally, creating clothes digitally, to actually consumers wearing them, which is kind of unexpected and interesting.

James - And I'm sure there are people who first hear that idea and think who on earth would want to buy a garment or something that they could only wear digitally?

Maghan - I think there actually is quite an audience that spans ages and especially I think in the pandemic, it was quite clear that the number of people who might have seen you wear a cool outfit going to the store or going to a restaurant, is pretty minimal compared to hypothetically the number of people who see you on Instagram or see you on Snapchat. We're starting to think about what is the value of clothing? Does it give you that dopamine hit to wear something really cool on the internet? And I think it does.

James - I suppose this is the potential future where you're going to be scrolling on Instagram or tapping through Snapchat and not knowing anymore whether the clothes people are wearing on the screen are real or not.

Maghan - Yes. Like, I have a number of images of digital fashion on my Instagram where, throughout the pandemic, I posted all these fantastical outfits that I didn't wear physically, but I got to wear them on Instagram. And I think now brands are seeing it, not just as a marketing opportunity, but as a real way of doing business.

James - I get it. And instead of trying to curb people's desire for access to new clothes at more regular intervals, this is a way to keep up with that demand, as you say, to look cool, to stand out, but in a way that isn't harmful for the planet.

Maghan - Yeah. I think that's the premise. And that's the promise beyond just when you look at the consumer uses, there's even potentially more value in the back end before it gets to the consumer standpoint. And I think a big turning point in the industry for me was in late 2019 PVH corp, which owns Tommy Hilfiger, said that by this year, 2022, they aimed to design all of their products digitally, which means when they design, sample, fit on model, send to production, all of this process ideally would happen digitally. That is a huge point of savings, both cost time and just waste. It reduces waste. And you don't even realise that it's not a physical garment that was photographed on a model. And I think that's really interesting.


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