Bio-based textile materials

Definition and perspectives
Sustainability Glossary - MU Sustainable Innovation

The term "bio-based" refers to materials or products wholly or partially derived from biomass: plants and vegetables, especially concerning new developments in the field of bioplastics, which use biomass such as corn, sugar cane, or cellulose as raw material to replace fossil sources such as oil.


It is important to note that bio-based does not necessarily mean biodegradable. Some bioplastics are biodegradable, such as PLA and PHA, but others are NOT, such as bio-nylon or bio-polyester. Furthermore, even though most of the plastics and synthetic fibers from fossil sources are NOT biodegradable, e.g., nylon and polyester, some are biodegradable. An example of biodegradable plastic from fossil sources is, PBAT (Polybutylene adipate terephthalate), one of the components of biodegradable plastic bags. PBAT is widely used in many countries for the collection of the domestic waste wet fraction or as compostable bags used in supermarkets. 


In the textile field, the term generally refers to the production of manmade fibers, such as nylon and polyester, where the replacement of fossil fuels is one of the main fields of innovation. Cellulosic chemical fibers, such as viscose, cupro, and acetate are also bio-based, as, of course, are natural fibers.


Innovation in bio-based synthetic fibers

With over 65 million tons produced worldwide, synthetic fibers are the most widely used raw materials in textile processes, and largely exceeded natural fibers. The sensitivity of public opinion to the environment has placed them under the spotlight, concerning three aspects mainly: the origin from fossil sources and the related net emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere; the very long biodegradation times, of the order of centuries, which make the waste permanent in the environment and, more recently, concerning the phenomenon of microplastics in the seas, that some studies connect, among other causes, also to the washing of synthetic fiber clothing. On the other hand, it is worth reminding that synthetic fibers, even the traditional ones made from oil, can have a lower environmental impact than many natural fibers. Synthetics production requires less water consumption and hazardous chemicals, such as pesticides, and zero consumption of arable land.


The chemical industry has recently introduced bio-based synthetic fibers, such as bio-nylon, bio-polyester, and others, replacing fossil materials with vegetable oils, starches, and sugars from biomass. These new fibers contribute to the "decarbonization" of textile production. "Decarbonization" means the reduction of the use of fossil raw materials in the industry and, consequently, of net CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. Biobased synthetic fibers, on the other hand, do not solve the problems of the permanence of waste and microplastics, since their biodegradation times are similar to those of traditional synthetic fibers.


Biobased synthetic fibers are already available on the market. The fibers can be 100% bio-based, i.e., entirely produced from biomass, or only partially bio-based, i.e., in a composition of around 50% with fossil materials. Bio-based fibers account for a small share of the market, but the volumes are growing fast. The European Bioplastics Association and the Nova Institute, the leading European research center in the sector, calculate that bio-based chemical fibers production is today close to 300 thousand tons.