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Plastic Reality

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In his second featured article with us, Yotam Solomon continues his exploration of renewable versus recyclable for the average consumer, and his thoughts on fashion production from an eco-friendly point of view. Yotam is a fashion designer and product developer focusing on cradle-to-cradle innovation in apparel and footwear, and sits on our Expert panel as a sustainable fashion design expert. This latest instalment can be considered a call to action for retailers and brands the world over.

Most of us try to modify our daily life to allow for a more eco-friendly lifestyle, hoping it will make a difference little by little. We look for eco products, we look for locally made products, and we try to consume less. The reality is that it does make a difference, especially if we do so collectively by encouraging our friends and speaking about environmentally friendly habits. Unfortunately, the reality is that our eco-friendly habits are not sufficient in our modern world.

The truth of the matter is that it all started with the industrial revolution, a period that allowed us to live longer and healthier; however, it also caused pollution that has damaged our planet like never before. The industrial revolution marked the first time that we consumed petrochemicals in mass quantities in order to achieve greater innovation. This innovation ranges from everyday products to modern machinery and advanced medicine. Nearly every product we buy is made of petrochemicals – oil – starting from your wardrobe, to your appliances, furniture, medicine, and even your toothpaste! This is why it is imperative to know how to make a difference, even if it is minimal.

It is incredible that our former generations created amazing technologies that reshaped our world and led us to the modern technology of our 21st century. Even though the advancement introduced far cleaner solutions than ever before, modern technology was still dependent on toxic chemicals that were far from sustainable or environmentally responsible. The reality is that our generation, along with generation Z, will have to deal with a substantial clean up and the creation of truly sustainable, cradle-to-cradle (C2C) innovation. This is true for all industries: energy, agriculture, chemical (pharmaceutical), construction, food, transportation, and all product manufacturing. Most people think that living an eco-friendly lifestyle is too complicated; I agree that it is very expensive and time consuming, but it is also necessary. Currently, there are many issues with how industries and consumers handle products after their lifecycle ends, and often forgotten is the initial environmental pollution that occurs in the manufacturing of these products. Most products (not all) created by modern technology of the 21st century are non-biodegradable and have catastrophic effects on our plant.

In modern consumerism, what is the most discussed and discarded material? It is plastic.

Initially, plastic was the magic material that allowed us to find a lighter, thinner, unbreakable, and easier to use replacement for glass. It took us a long time to realize the issues that plastic caused. In my opinion, the worst thing about plastic is that it is engineered to last for hundreds of years. Plastic was developed to last forever; it not only breaks down very slowly, it is also inorganic, which is why so much of it pollutes our land and oceans. It kills multiple species of organisms, fish, mammals, and birds on a daily basis, yet we still drink from plastic bottles and walk out of grocery stores with plastic bags!

Plastic has seven numbered grades; each grade reflects a different melting point and a different recyclable percentage. Only a small percentage of physical plastic can be recycled, which means that when you place a plastic bottle in a recycling bin, the best-case scenario, only 14% of it will actually be reused.

14 percent.

There are three metrics to help consumers evaluate plastics: melting point, chemical content, and recyclability. These metrics consider impact on health and environmental sustainability but simultaneously contradict each other. This is why it is important to understand the implications of the plastics we buy.

Let’s look at some of the metrics regarding the plastic industry. Plastic is heavily dependent on petrochemicals and is also carcinogenic due to the different chemicals used to create it; plastic also contains BPA – Bisphenol-A – a toxic synthetic chemical that may be labeled under different names. Even though a package may state a product is BPA free, this substance might still be present.

In most products, plastic has a low melting point. This means that when plastic is heated up, the actual material leaks into the substance (water/food) contained inside of it. Plastics are numbered according to their melting point. Unfortunately, most water bottles range from numbers 1 to 3, which are on the lowest melting point spectrum. This is exactly why water tastes like plastic when you leave your water bottle in the car on a hot sunny day. What is even worse: the highest recyclability of all plastics on the current market is 14% (number 1 plastic – polyethylene terephthalate). Consequently, in the best-case scenario, the minimum recycling waste for any plastic product is 86%, which is far from ideal. To make matters worse, number 5 – polypropylene – can only be recycled up to 0.2%, having 99.8% go to waste, and some plastics that cannot be recycled at all.

Plastics are just the tip of the iceberg; most fashion products are produced with many synthetic raw materials and even more chemicals for processing and finishing. Most of these materials may have low recyclability percentages; this is exactly why we need to move away from recyclability to renewability. It’s time to create a new symbol for renewability. I often wonder why the symbol for recyclable and renewable matches. We need better metrics for evaluation of materials!

As a fashion designer and product developer, in order to replace the outdated chemical-heavy technologies utilized today, it is my job and responsibility to create renewable materials that comply with the C2C methodology. The reality of my work and other experts in this field is that research and development is time consuming and very expensive. In many cases, even successful research and development lead to political battles for entry to market since big corporations lobby against emerging competition. It is fascinating that the very same governmental organizations that regulate PLM employ lobbyists and receive donations from companies that should be targeted. This leads to increased barriers to competition for sustainable innovation instead of helping material technology start-ups enter the market.

Plastic is an obvious example since it is destroying our planet before our eyes; we have accumulated more data about how it is affecting our environment. One example is the ‘Plastic Paradise’ documentary. It is a fascinating movie by Angela Sun, an award winning TV journalist. The movie contains a fantastic quote by Jeanne Rizzo, the Executive Director of the Breast Cancer Fund, “Everyday we add oestrogen-like chemicals to our body through plastics; without your permission you are being polluted. Is that okay with you?”

Even though this is our reality now, it can change for the better. It is up to us to demand that brands and retailers invest in research and development; it is up to us to make sure that our governments create codes and regulations while supporting and funding clean manufacturing.

It is not about consuming less; it is about consuming sustainable and renewable products that are C2C.

There would be no waste if everything became renewable. Jeanne Rizzo has a great point and I also think that we should move away from not knowing what our products contain and how they are made. When you consume less, you are still being polluted. Ultimately, it is about not being polluted at all. The conversation must move away from recycling and restricting industry growth. Instead, we ought to focus on making a new renewable reality that will reshape our industries and support our eco-systems for a truly balanced cycle.

It is time for the new reality and it is lurking on the horizon.

Yotam Solomon Yotam Solomon is a fashion designer and product developer focusing on cradle-to-cradle (C2C) innovation in apparel and footwear. Yotam draws inspiration from the natural environment; he has designed collections based on the Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico and on the relationship between prescribed drugs and its effect on our DNA.His approach to design goes beyond the aesthetic of a product; it’s about supporting people, building an economy, and preserving and enriching our natural resources. By working with mass manufacturers and smaller production houses, Yotam initiated new research and development projects to eliminate toxic chemicals from today’s manufacturing process.Yotam brings insight about the relationship between sustainable design and the purchasing habits of the end consumer, and serves on our Expert panel as a sustainable fashion design expert.