The best features in recycling
In terms of segments of the population responsible for a disproportionate amount of waste, ‘Fashionistas’ – those enthralled with ‘seasonal trends’ and ‘fast fashion’, who wouldn’t dare be seen in last year’s styles – must be towards the top of the list. Right up there with them, though, are the ‘Techies’ – those on the cutting edge of gadgetry, who have to have the latest devices, who queue for hours at the Apple store for the launch of the ‘new iPad’ because the iPad 2 just won’t do. Now, imagine the potential consequences for waste production if you combine these two interests, if fashion becomes technological. Turns out, you won’t necessarily have to imagine for long because electronic textiles or ‘e-textiles’ already exist and are on an upward trend.
Currently, e-textiles are confined to prototypes at trade fairs and specialist applications, such as heart-rate monitors embedded in tee-shirts for use in the medical and sports sectors. However, according to Andreas Kohler who’s researching the topic at the Delft University of Technology: “It can be expected that this technology will reach the mass market in the next couple of years.” It may not be long before soldiers’ kits are powered by the electronic yarn of their uniforms, gamers replace their joysticks, controllers and wands altogether in favour of bodysuits embedded with motion sensors and even your average Joe on the street can be seen sporting a jacket with integrated mp3 player, mobile phone and dial pad.
It’s exciting stuff. In dreaming up the possibilities, though, there’s a risk that issues of sustainability will be left out of the current design stage. Kohler and his colleagues published an article in the Journal of Industrial Ecology on the premise that: ‘If the convergence of textile and electronic products leads to short-lived mass products, then it is likely that they will become a source of large waste streams in the future.’ Combining as they would two types of products that are not currently well recycled, they could create a very tricky waste stream to handle on any scale.
Unfortunately, not many people seem to be thinking about it; Kohler says: “Designers, in both research and industry, are mostly aware of the need to design products in a way that they can be recycled, but there is a huge lack of knowledge, a lot of wishful thinking, I would say.” He also points me towards the draft of a vision paper on the emerging smart textiles sector published by the Plastic Electronics Foundation, noting: “What is striking is the fact that the vision paper does not mention sustainability issues at all, such as eco-design, waste prevention, recycling, etc. Obviously, the emerging sector is negligent of these strategic drivers.”
If developers don’t breach their sustainability knowledge gap – and quickly – there’s a risk we could wind up with quite a mess on our hands: just as everyone has a mobile phone these days when hardly anyone did just over a decade ago, e-textiles can be expected to quickly penetrate the market: “Of course, you want to change your shirt from time to time, or your jacket”, notes Kohler, “so people will have more than one device in their possession at the same time.” While we don’t yet know what the final composition and design of e-textiles will be, for the purposes of their paper, Kohler et al estimated that potential global arisings of e-textile waste could be around a million tonnes per year as an order of magnitude. And these e-textiles, like the electronics we use and dispose of today, could contain both precious metals as well as hazardous substances.
Kohler suggests that the disposal challenge with e-textiles could be even greater than the current dilemma posed by WEEE: “As for electronic textiles, which can also contain precious metals like silver or even gold, it will be technically more challenging because the concentration of these metals in textiles are much lower than the concentration of the same metals in mobile phones. So, the economic incentive of collecting them and recycling those materials is lower than for mobile phones.”
What’s more, while recovery costs could be prohibitively high in the West, there’s a risk that e-textiles will be (mis)handled in the same way as WEEE currently is in parts of China, India and Africa. In these places, workers – often children – burn electronic components of waste to salvage the precious metal components, thus exposing themselves to toxic substances. With the likelihood that recycling will not be taken up in the West and that e-textiles will find their way to these countries along established textile export routes, these garments may well increase or prolong the environmental dangers currently posed by used electronics.
And there could be other implications if e-textiles enter the traditional textile recycling stream at the end of their useful lives (though, again, textile recycling rates tend to be quite low – two-thirds of textiles still wind up as residual waste according to a 2010 Defra report). “If electronic textiles entered the fibre-to-fibre recycling stream, there may be technical problems”, Kohler says. “Mostly these materials are shredded and if there are any electronic components which enter the shredding process, there may be the risk of contamination, heavy metals contaminating recycled fibres. But this is mainly a technical problem – I am sure that the industry can develop technologies that solve that, but this would also be costly and would increase the cost of fibre recycling, perhaps making it less attractive economically.”
First-generation e-textiles are being developed with distinct electronic components incorporated into pockets, et cetera, but the aim of designers seems to be to integrate the electronic and textile bits as a seamlessly as possible. Currently, the innovation process is seeking eletronic devices incorporated throughout textile materials as embroidered sensors, for instance, or laminated circuit boards. And ultimately, the aim seems to be to create textiles with inherent electronic functionality – clothing made from yarn transistors, for instance, or fibres that can themselves act as circuits or photovoltaics. Kohler considers this a potentially worrying direction: “Currently, the trend is to integrate electronics and textiles very deeply, so that they cannot be separated easily. I think my first advice [to designers] would be to find design principles and integration technologies that make separation easy, or at least possible.” Kohler also advises avoiding toxic substances in mass-produced products, as well as considering the impacts of introducing energy consumption to products that, until now, haven’t been energy consuming.
E-textiles have the potential to revolutionise both the clothing and electronics sectors, to the delight of Fashionistas and Techies everywhere, no doubt. They don't necessarily have to do so at the expense of the environment and to the chagrin of Greens, but the time to act is now: "It is really important to think about sustainability issues early in the stage of development,” concludes Kohler, “otherwise this technology will be developed and scaled up to industry scale, and if you then have environmental problems resulting from that, they cannot be solved anymore as the industry will have already- established technologies.”
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