It is difficult to imagine clothes without any elastic properties. Its ability to stretch and retain its original shape and size makes elastane an incredibly versatile material found in a large percentage of clothing. Unfortunately, it is not a very sustainable fiber. But what exactly is the problem with elastane? And are there any sustainable alternatives? 

What is elastane?

Elastane is a lightweight, synthetic fiber used to make stretchy clothing. The material is sometimes also referred to as 'spandex' or 'lycra'. While the fiber itself is elastane, it has different names depending on the manufacturer and the country where it is made and sold. For example, in the United States, elastane is usually referred to as 'spandex', while 'lycra' is another commercial name, usually used in Europe.

Why is elastane used in clothing?

Elastane is commonly used to make clothing stretchy. As such, it is most often found in sports- and swimwear. However, it can also be found in almost every kind of apparel that needs to be form-fitting and flexible, ranging from underwear to socks and even jeans.

What is elastane made from, and is it sustainable?

Elastane is a petroleum-based fiber; it comprises a long chain polymer called polyurethane, a nonrenewable resource.

These primary components of elastane are most often formulated in a lab setting, so acquiring the raw materials for elastane isn't considered harmful to the environment. However, the process of manufacturing elastane is energy-intensive and involves the use of a variety of toxic chemicals.

What is the problem with elastane?

Although elastane doesn't make up a large percentage of the end product - often it's only between 1 and 5 percent - fabric blends containing the material are complicated to recycle. From an environmental perspective, the biggest problem is that elastane is not biodegradable; the material and fabric blends containing elastane do not break down over time in nature.

Because they can't be recycled, clothing pieces containing elastane most often end up in landfills. Instead of breaking down, they then gradually accumulate in the environment. But pollution not only occurs at the end of a clothing piece's life, but tiny fibers also leach into the environment just by being washed. Estimates vary, but it's possible that a single load of laundry could release hundreds of thousands of fibers from our clothes into the water supply, from where they eventually reach the ocean.

It's been found that nearly 60 percent of the plastic pollution found in marine environments is composed of non-biodegradable clothing fibers.

ROICA™ V550 - a sustainable alternative to elastane

So what can be done to protect our environment from microplastics contained in clothing? Simply eliminating elastane is not an option as there will always be a need for form-fitting garments that are stretchy but can still maintain their original shape. Fortunately, a more sustainable alternative to elastane works the same way as traditional elastane when blended with other fibers. This sustainable alternative is called ROICA™ V550.

What is ROICA™ V550?

ROICA™ V550 is a stretch yarn based on the Asahi Kasei polymer science. The yarn achieved a Gold Material Health Certificate from the Cradle-to-Cradle Product Innovation Institute, as well as the Hohenstein Environment Compatibility Certification, proving that it can break down without releasing harmful substances into the environment at its end of life.

Is ROICA™ V550 biodegradable?

It's important to note that ROICA™ V550 does not classify as being biodegradable, as its degradation speed is too slow. For materials to qualify as biodegradable, they must completely break down and decompose into natural elements within a short time after disposal – typically a year or less. 35% of the ROICA™ V550 yarn breaks down within 270 days. So far, there is no information on how long it takes for the fiber to break down completely, as degradation tests are still being carried out.

ROICA™ V550 is the only alternative to conventional elastane that is currently available on the market. At The Slow Label, we always question the status quo and try to find more sustainable solutions, so we will be opting for ROICA™ V550 instead of conventional elastane in garments that require some stretchiness.

Asahi Kasei - ROICA™ V550
Sewport - What is elastane fabric?
VOX - Ocean plastic pollution: why our clothes are part of the problem
BBC - Why clothes are so hard to recycle
NY Times - What comes out in the wash

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