The Downside Of Sustainable Milestones Made By Plant-and-Plastic Hybrids

Exploring and sharing Dr Ashley Holding and Paula Lorenz write up on thecircularlaboratory.com that gives an interesting point of view to the downside of Plant-and-Plastic Hybrids

As the second-largest polluter in the world, after the oil industry, the fashion industry has turned to material innovation as its potential superhero. With pressure to address problems like plastic waste, another route has been introduced. It is one that has led to the birth of Deep Science x High Design, Memory Wool Fabric With Super Abilities and vegan cactus leather.

With the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which was adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, looms, the fashion industry is in search of a whole new approach when it comes to how they do business. When it comes to celebrating material innovations, leading with a certain naiveté should not be the way forward; instead, the industry needs first to understand the full picture. The revolution of materials is a lot more complicated than is portrayed by those marketing the innovations. The use of “sustainability marketing trickery”, a term used by Dr Ashley Holding and Paula Lorenz, has unfortunately led to excitement about the innovation milestones which come across exceptional on paper, but what about in practice, do they deliver?

Why The Creating of Hybrids Can Be A Problem Says TheCircularLaboratory.com

The words, ‘Vegan leather’ sound delightful. So much so that it came as no surprise that when a Mexico startup called Desserto launched a leather alternative made out of cactus, the industry got excited. What wasn’t revealed was that the cactus leather was not exactly plastic-free. What, I hear you say. I recently read that Desserto only partly created their vegan leather with cactus; the rest was described in a recent write-up by Dr Ashley Holding and Paula Lorenz as “undefined chemicals”. Although the founders have shared that the chemicals they use are non-toxic, it is not a truth that was revealed so openly by Desserto. Instead, the Mexican startup concentrated on the fact that their material was ‘PVC Free’ and therefore, did not contain a particular type of plastic. 

Cactus Leather | Image Credit: Desserto

Tackling misleading factors in the marketing when it comes to new materials, Dr Ashley Holding and Paula Lorenz investigated Desserto and found that their cactus leather’s main ingredient is plastic polyurethane (65%). The cactus only makes up 30% of the material by weight. They argued in an article published on thecircularlaboratory.com: “One of the biggest misleading factors in the marketing of Desserto though is the biodegradability claim. The material is said to be ‘partly ‘biodegradable. In reality, there is no such thing as a material being partly biodegradable: either the whole material is biodegradable, or it isn’t”. 

When Sustainability Marketing Trickery Need Not Apply

There is some good news. There are unicorn companies that have found a way of creating leather entirely from natural materials, without any plastics. One of those companies identified by thecircularlaboratory.com is Natural Fibre Welding. They have come up with a wholly plant-based leather, which means no PVC, no EVA, no petrochemicals. ON Natural Fibre Welding Dr Ashley Holding and Paula Lorenz point out that they are unique because they have found a way to avoid using new petroleum resources and also the mixing of petroleum and natural materials. It is an achievement that has led to Mirum having not only the lowest resource and carbon footprint but also the lowest ecological impact in its category.

Both recyclable and biodegradable, Mirum is not only less of a threat to the natural environment, but it also tackles the problem of microplastics. “Have you ever noticed how the coatings on synthetic plastic leather-like materials tend to ‘flake’ off with time? This problem is often exacerbated with plastic-natural hybrid materials since the adhesion between natural materials and plastics are often less because of reduced chemical compatibility,” said Dr Luke Haverhals to Dr Ashley Holding and Paula Lorenz.

What Now?

Well, knowledge is power. The thecircularlaboratory.com write-up taught me to not be afraid to ask the hard questions. Not all new materials are 100% good. There is a tradeoff that Dr Ashley Holding and Paula Lorenz acknowledge. They stated in their article that although Desserto’s cactus content will most likely reduce the carbon footprint, compared to pure polyurethane and animal leather, does not make it the saviour material that we, including myself, had hoped it was. Yes, it offers a better alternative, but if you want to make conscious, informed decisions, do not only ask yourself what exactly the material is made from also think about its end-of-life, and remember to ask, is it recyclable, or biodegradable?

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