Year review and upcycling concept

Happy holidays with peace, joy, goodwill … and upcycling!

If 2019 was turbulent, 2020 promises more intense debate, confrontation, tough decision-making and, hopefully, positive change. Meanwhile, most of us can potentially make small festive green differences of a type being pioneered by the multi-billion pound fashion industry.

Extra-strong resolutions

Twelve hectic months of the old year are coming to a close with many open-ended questions still in urgent need of answers as the New Year dawns. Very few people will not be affected.

Later, we look at a very hands-on approach to not only recycling but also making more from less with used Christmas materials. Before that, a brief review of unprecedented developments during the last month may be helpful.

Following December’s general election, one option mooted for the incoming Government could be a new Whitehall department specifically designed to tackle climate change in a reversal of the 2016 decision to fold the Department for Energy and Climate Change into the Department for Business.

The growing strength of popular direct action movements to get to grips with increasingly alarming examples of global warming could also add power to the elbow of the Environment Bill which passed its 2nd Commons reading unopposed with multi-party support at the end of the last Parliament.

In the UK, urgent calls for action have been underlined graphically by unprecedented flooding in South Yorkshire’s Don Valley and recent rapid aggressive land erosion on England’s east coast.

Action this day … or in 2020?

Signalling a new post-election commitment to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised “to make this country the cleanest, greenest on Earth with the most far-reaching environmental programme”.

In a move away from the metropolitan south-east, another commentator also noted that climate change “… provides unparalleled scope for reinvigorating the regions by putting them centre stage in the required energy transition”.

Disappointingly, the world did little to agree a meaningful way forward when 194 nations meet at COP25 (conference of the parties) in Madrid in a much-needed attempt to force countries to put hard emission-cutting figures on the table to keep global warming rises by 2100 below 1.50C.

The hope is for greater commitment and more convincing results when COP26 is held in Glasgow from 9-19 November in 2020. Will the UK then be in a position to show a lead?

A boost for Sustainable Development Goals

2020 will also see the start of an intense super-decade of action to achieve UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) ending poverty, protecting the planet and improving the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere.

Although the 17 Goals were adopted by all UN Member States in 2015 with a 15-year implementation plan, progress has been limited. To close the gap by 2030, world leaders at the SDG Summit in September 2019 pledged to mobilise financing, improve national implementation and strengthen institutions to ensure that no one is left behind.

To set the ball rolling in the Northwest, SDGs will be the subject of an early New Year Chamber Low Carbon ‘Learn and Lunch’ event on 10 January at Red Rose Court. For details, and to sign up to join us, please go to https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/lunch-and-learn-sustainable-development-goals-tickets-72220632857.

Making more from Christmas jumpers!

And so to things festive. Seasonal sweaters – typically with light-up reindeer noses or alpine motifs -have been linked to a completely well-meaning publicity push by a major children’s charity. Unfortunately, they are also said to be generating waste and releasing plastics into the environment.

It has been estimated that 12 million new jumpers will have been bought at the end of 2019, adding to 65 million already lying unused from previous years in UK wardrobes. The environmental charity Hubbub has found that 95% use wholly or partially plastic-based material.

One in three adults under 35 now buys a new Christmas jumper every year. Three quarters contain plastic fibre acrylic; 44% are entirely acrylic. A recent Plymouth University study found that 730,000 microfibers are released per wash. Inadvertently, consumers are contributing to what Hubbub describes as one of the worst examples of fast fashion which is hugely damaging to the environment.

Fashionable to be unfashionable?

Fortunately, the fashion industry is now leading a major initiative to stem its much criticised sustainability record. Its tool is the concept of upcycling – creating more new value from less.

Fashion is so concerned about its negative waste reputation that more than 300 brands in the Make Friday Green Again movement actually asked buyers not to purchase items they don’t need during 2019’s Black Friday sales on 29 November.

But before looking at fundamental global fashion industry changes which could help other sectors, it is worth looking quickly at some key 2019 environmental and sustainable milestones.

A stormy twelve-months

January saw 3,000 world business leaders, policymakers and creative thought-leaders gather once again in Davos, Switzerland, where the circular economy was discussed at length. Ironically perhaps, Prime Minister Johnson will not attend the 2020 event and is reported to be barring his ministers from taking part.

In February, the word “crisis” was used widely for the environment. An IPPR (Institute for Public Policy Research) report also showed that waste, resources, climate, biodiversity and social inequality are inter-related. Former Chancellor Philip Hammond’s spring statement in March introduced a conservation commitment for Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG).

Meanwhile, in April the term “net-zero” began to dominate the headlines. In May, Teresa May resigned after declaring a “climate emergency”. Net-zero became legally binding for the UK in June. Mr Johnson became PM in July.

August and September saw a build up to pivotal UN summits. In the UK, Parliament re-opened on 14 October when the Environment Bill formed part of the first Queen’s Speech of 2019. Following intense pre-election campaigning in November, COP25 produced no real results in December.

Slowing down fast fashion with upcycling

Whether a dedicated follower or not, no-one can dispute that ‘the rag trade’ is a major generator of wealth, jobs and careers. The UK fashion market has been valued at circa £66 billion – 7% of the economy – and employs some 555,000 people. However, fashion creates waste – some 300,000 tonnes went to landfill in 2016, according to WRAP – and 10% of the world’s carbon footprint.

Upcycling, which can be used in many different sectors, aims to turn old or unwanted materials into something useful or creative with a higher value but a smaller footprint – recycling is sometimes described as down-cycling because reprocessing tends to decrease value at each successive stage.

Instead of breaking down items or materials into components, upcycling retains, adapts and improves them so the value of the end-product is greater than the sum of the parts while reducing air and water pollution, landfill use, emissions, waste disposal handling costs and combustion.

A major problem is fast fashion described as cheap, trendy clothing that changes by the season, or more frequently, often with vibrant colours, prints and finishes that are created with toxic chemicals. Driven by cost-efficiency, innovative supply chain management, cheap imitations and low prices, many clothing items are now “nearly disposable” goods.

Washing problems down to the sea

As an example of a negative impact, it is estimated that one washing load of non-biodegradable polyester clothing can put some 700,000 microfibers into the environment – circa 500,000 tonnes flow out to sea annually and have been tracked around the world.

A report by The Pulse of Fashion (https://www.globalfashionagenda.com/publications/#) also found that fashion in 2015 put 1,715 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, more energy than aviation and shipping combined (https://unfccc.int/news/un-helps-fashion-industry-shift-to-low-carbon).

But there are potential circular solutions too. One is to develop microbes that ‘eat’ and break down petroleum-based polyester cheaply into a basic raw material that can be recycled. Another is to make use of the up to 25 million tonnes of wasted citrus peels and seeds that can be transformed into raw materials used to spin yarns (https://www.hindawi.com/journals/bmri/2015/494182/).

Quick-growing algae-based fibres grown in seas and lakes have a small water-footprint. One very pragmatic suggestion is for a database that tracks the circa 15% of fabric-ends left after clothing manufacture so that other producers can use them.

Upcycling can be both personal and industrial

Much of fashion’s upcycling drive is based on individual designers inventively incorporating used items into their clothing which adds customer value through uniqueness. Upcycling can also reuse ‘deadstock’ or ‘gently used fabric’.

On an industrial-scale, plastic bottles are being turned into yarns and materials for everything from jackets and t-shirts to shoes and accessories. Closed-loop plastic material recycling technology allows plastics to be returned repeatedly into consumer products.

Adidas x Parley already upcycles ocean plastic into shoes; Adidas has made six million pairs with upcycled ocean plastic uppers. Another thought is that young designers as ‘waste engineers’ should be taught about zero waste pattern cutting, following waste-streams, using second-hand clothing at scale, requesting factory remnants, plus taking garments apart and reusing them for something else.

More industrial processes

However, some problems need industrial-scale solutions. Cotton used extensively in denim creates a large fraction of textile waste but is land and water intensive. Ionic liquids – salts that are liquid – are used to dissolve cotton textiles into cellulose building blocks which can then be spun into new viscose-type fibres; a new process reduces solvent costs by 77% and, by retaining colours, also cuts water and energy use that would be needed for dyeing.

In September The British Fashion Council also announced plans to launch the Institute of Positive Fashion on the basis that there is “… an urgent need for industry-wide coalition to help set industry standards in a new way, embrace innovation and develop the need for leaders to create green businesses fit for the future and enable positive change.”

Happy upcycling New Year!

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