A Dutch company called Avantium is a leader in the production of a 100% bio-based plastic material called polyethylene furanoate, or PEF. It’s a lot like the PET plastics used to make soda bottles and the like, but it’s a much greener alternative. Avantium recently launched a line of shirts made from PEF fibers, and it’s surely just the beginning of sustainable clothing design.
What the Hell is PEF?!
Good question, and the full answer is only suitable for science geeks out there – read that explanation here. For the less-nerdy types, PEF is 100% derived from plants, making it a completely sustainable product. You can use PEF the same way you use PET to make plastic bottles, plastic trays/cups, and synthetic fibers for clothing.
The science behind the process involves utilizing the sugars in plants to produce the plastic materials without the need for petroleum.
Major companies have jumped on board early on in the development of PEF products, including Coca-Cola. They’re currently working with Avantium to produce a 100% bio-based PlantBottle using PEF technology.
What’s it like Wearing a Plant?
The PEF material can be melted down and formed into thin fibers for spinning and weaving using the same technology used to make polyester clothing.
The same process is already being used by several green clothing companies out there who use PET plastics to create clothing fibers. Avantium is the first to develop PEF-based fibers.
You can produce high-performance clothing, such as sports jerseys, using PEF. Several countries actually wore soccer jerseys made with 30% PEF at the 2010 World Cup. It wasn’t until just recently that a 100% PEF-based shirt was perfected.
The PEF fibers are similar to synthetic polyester material in many ways. You’d be hard-pressed (or lying) to known you’re wearing a t-shirt made from plants based on appearance or feel alone.
How is PEF Better for the Environment?
The biggest advantage is the fact PEF isn’t made using petroleum, like PET bottles. This not only reduces the need for foreign oil, but it also helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
According to a 2012 study published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science, PEF reduces the need for non-renewable energy usage (NREU) by 45% to 50% and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 45% to 55% compared to the PET plastic production process.
The biggest downside of PEF bottles is that while they are 100% recyclable, they aren’t biodegradable. So once PEF is used on a large scale, a focus on recycling the bio-based plastic is essential.
What About Recycling this New Stuff?
This is something that needs to be addressed early on. PEF can be recycled right alongside PET plastics but only in small quantities – 5% PEF to 95% PET. At this ratio, the recycled plastic doesn’t show any adverse effects.
Avantium has created a facility in New Amsterdam to recycle PEF plastics, but it only handles 40 tons per year. A full-scale PEF recycling plant isn’t planned to open until 2017-2018.
Sadly, there aren’t any recycling facilities in the U.S., but with the PEF technology being in its infancy, I’m sure this will change in the coming years as companies like Coca-Cola begin pushing PEF products into the market.