The world is producing and throwing away more plastic fabric than ever before. According to Biomass Magazine, as much as 200 billion pounds of plastic are produced annually. Much of this can be attributed to the fashion industry as natural fibres are increasingly replaced by synthetics. Only a minute percentage of that plastic is recycled due to technical difficulties. What if there was a better way to use all the plastic waste? What if we could turn fabric fibres into fuel? Here’s a sneak peak into innovative corporations busy testing that theory.
Before we get down to specifics, it’s important that we remember where all that plastic waste ends up. Often, it finds its way into the ocean, thanks to improper disposal and the shedding of plastic fibres during ordinary washing. As a result, the Pacific Ocean has found itself as the location of the world’s biggest landfill, nicknamed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It’s devastating to see. Unlike more natural materials, plastic fibres don’t decompose. They break into smaller pieces and keep circulating through the currents. As I wrote in a previous article, it’s the biggest environmental problem you’ve never heard of, but contribute to daily.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that this mountain of plastic waste in some far off ocean doesn’t affect you. In reality, it affects us every day. It contaminates our tap water and pollutes the air we breathe, contributing to a plethora of diseases. Remember that 70% of the air we breathe is produced by marine plants. What happens when those plants are so inundated with plastic that they are unable to thrive and support our habitat?
There have been many attempts to recycle or repurpose the plastic in a more sustainable way. There has been a failure, however, to find a solution that makes a big enough impact on the mountain of plastic polluting our world. Garments have been made using recycled plastics, but it doesn’t stop the cycle altogether. Though this process may remove some plastic from landfill, it is eventually returned when the clothing meets its end of life.
Sadly, historians theorise that this plastic monstrosity will be the legacy this age leaves behind. Right behind the stone, bronze and iron ages, descendants will denote this civilisation as one that filled the oceans, rivers and forests with plastic—unless something changes in a big way.
Thanks to Japan Environmental Planning (Jeplan), Tokyo’s Green Earth Institute and Japan Airlines the plastic problem might be changing sooner than we thought. Unlike previous plastic fibre recycling programs, which simply transform the plastic from one state to another, this new innovation seeks to eliminate plastic waste altogether.
Japan Airlines is in the process of fermenting plastic waste into biofuel. If all goes well, they plan to start testing the fuel in flight during the 2020 Olympic Games. Who could have imagined that our old fashion could end up as jet fuel?
Jeplan founder Michihiko Iwamota did, “I totally believed that in the future, there would be a car that runs on garbage,” said Iwamoto, “But years went by, and that didn’t happen. So I thought I’d develop it.” Unlike fossil fuels, transforming waste into fuel could unlock a huge resource that shows no sign of running out anytime soon. Iwamota isn’t the only one beginning to see the potential, Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand are now looking into creating similar biofuels using pulp waste from the paper industry.
There is still one challenge when it comes to the biofuel produced using fabric fibres, burning the fuel still outputs carbon emissions. The solution is not a perfect one, but the process still results in comparatively lower emissions than traditional jet fuel, with the extra benefit of removing plastic from the environment. I’d say that’s still a huge step in the right direction.