All that glitters is not plastic. Rachel Clowes, a London-based embroidery and print designer, is developing a new type of sequin for clothing embellishment that biodegrades at the end of its fashion lifetime. She calls them “bio-sequins”.
Sequins are typically made from petroleum-based plastics and PVC — a synthetic plastic polymer that produces persistent toxic and bioaccumulative chemicals known to be carcinogenic and disrupt hormone balance. As a result, the production and use of conventional sequins are polluting and unsustainable: sequins can stay in the environment for hundreds of years, clogging up ecosystems such as oceans, rivers and soils with chemical pollution. “Plastic sequins shimmer for a few hours on the dancefloor, then languish at the back of the wardrobe for a few years, before lying intact in a landfill for a few centuries or more,” Clowes says.
Her interest in “bio-sequins” stems from her master’s project at the London College of Fashion, in which she explored the problem posed by occasion wear languishing unworn for most of its lifetime. “I proposed that keeping something for a long time, but not wearing it, is not sustainable behaviour; it is simply storing waste within the wardrobe,” she says. Through her research, Clowes found that special-event wear has a short life, with sequinned clothing in particular worn only two to three times on average.
To Clowes, this represents wasted resources, energy and labour. As an alternative, she initially developed organic bio-sequins that dissolve in boiling water. “I experimented with different ingredients, ratios and processes until I could produce bright, shiny bio-sequins,” she explains. The dissolving sequins are made from starch, natural dye, water and fruit glycerine; the material has a rigidity and flexibility similar to that of conventional plastic. Once the bio-sequins are dissolved, the fluid can be composted, which returns the nutrients found in the natural dye and fruit glycerine back to the environment.
Clowes is now collaborating with Graham Ormondroyd at Bangor University’s BioComposites Centre, in Wales, to develop another range of bio-sequins designed to last the average few wears of occasional fashion before biodegrading. Instead of dissolving in boiling water, these are made from PLA (polylactic acid) and stand up to normal wear and washing before biodegrading at the end of their lifespan. PLA is a biodegradable polymer made from plants; the same material is used to make biodegradable packaging. “When it was first being used, there was a lot of discussion around whether it was taking food away from people, but now you can make PLA from waste products,” says Ormondroyd.
PLA can even be made from bread waste. As it is biodegradable, the bio-sequins break down when exposed to a microbial environment such as compost, but last longer when kept in a less microbe-friendly environment such as a wardrobe. How long the sequins take to break down depends on their thickness and the materials used to give them their colour, but Ormondroyd estimates that they will biodegrade in around six months.
The main challenge of the project is delivering the sequins’ bright colour and shine. To get the shine in plastic PVC sequins, manufacturers use aluminium, but when the material is refined it causes significant carbon dioxide emissions. Clowes and Ormondroyd aim to find a natural material that is also economically feasible; they are currently looking at using clay, which, as a non-biodegradable material, would leave behind only a coloured residue in compost.
The PLA sequins are currently in the prototype phase, and Clowes hopes to start supplying the fashion industry by the end of 2019. Once the PLA is produced in sheets, the bio-sequins are produced like PVC sequins, with machinery punching out the shapes. Due to this simple manufacturing process, Clowes could potentially make millions of bio-sequins in different shapes: circles, squares, triangles, ovals and teardrops.
By developing an environmentally friendly product, she aims to erase a harmful element of throwaway fashion without affecting the aesthetics. Her bio-sequins sparkle just like conventionally sequined clothing, yet safely disappear once their party is over.
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