Is elastane biodegradable? (7 reasons why elastane is harmful) 

In this article, the biodegradability of elastane is discussed. Other topics covered are: 

  • What is elastane?
  • What are the types of fibres?
  • How is elastane produced?
  • What is biodegradability?
  • What are examples of biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste?
  • Is elastane harmful to the environment?
  • Are there any green alternatives to elastane use?

Is elastane biodegradable?

Elastane is non-biodegradable because it is made from synthetic materials and also by the use of various chemicals. 

Although elastane causes no stress on plants because it is synthesised in the lab, elastane is bad for the environment and human health because it causes severe human-related and environmental complications.  

There are also some green alternatives and ways to curb these negative effects of elastane on the environment and human health such as using biobased elastane, recycled elastane and natural dyes to dye elastane. 

What is elastane?

Elastane is a term that is associated with textiles such as spandex or lycra. These textiles are famous for their amazing elasticity and owing to these properties, they are widely used in various applications and industries 

Elastane is made in the lab. It is not found in nature. Needless to say, there are various chemicals involved in the production of spandex and lycra. The primary substance that is used to make elastane polyurethane which is a polymer. 

Polymers are long chains of repeating units that are synthesised in the labs and are famous for their incredible functions and utilitarian values. 

What are the types of fabric fibres?

When it comes to fabric fibres, there are two options that are available to the consumers. These include natural and synthetic fibres. 

Natural fibres are made from natural sources such as animals or plants. Examples may include cotton, jute, silk and wool. These fibres are sourced from nature, however, their production can include the use of harmful chemicals like agrochemicals. 

These natural fibres come with some advantages such as: 

  • Eco-friendly 
  • Biodegradable
  • Durable
  • Better absorbance as compared to synthetic fibres 

On the other hand, we have synthetic fibres. These fibres are man-made and synthesised in the labs. The use of chemicals is important here that convert polymers into fibres. Some examples of these synthetic fibres may be: 

  • Microfibres
  • Rayon 
  • Spandex
  • Acrylic fibres 
  • Polyester 

These fibres are cheaper and offer the same utility as natural fibres. These fibres also have some edge which may not be there in the case of natural fibres. For example, synthetic fibres (like Dyneema) can be made 100% water-proof making them a good fit for outdoor use. 

How is elastane produced?

Elastane is produced in the labs with the use of chemicals and lab processes. There are 8 steps that are employed in the production of elastane in the labs. These include: 

  • Prepolymer stage 
  • Chain extension 
  • Dilution 
  • Extrusion 
  • Heating 
  • Twisting 
  • Finishing 
  • Weaving 

These are some of the basic steps that are adopted for the manufacturing of elastane in artificial settings. Elastane is not found in nature and is entirely made in the labs. 

It may also be mentioned that other than these basic steps, some alternative ways were also used to make elastane in the past. These methods included melt extrusion or reaction spinning. 

However, these processes are now considered obsolete because these processes are regarded as inefficient and wasteful.  

The steps mentioned above belong to the solution dry spinning method. 

This method commences with the production of prepolymers. These prepolymers serve as an edifice for elastane and are made by mixing macroglycol with a monomer. 

These prepolymers are then mixed with acids for the chain extension process. Most producers use diamine acid for this chain extension. Next, we have dilution which is done by using solvents. 

Next, there is the production of polymer fibres by machine equipment. These fibres are heated which converts liquid polymers to solid form strands. 

Lastly, we have the use of polymers like magnesium stearate that may be used as a finishing agent to give elastane its properties so that it may be used in various industries like sportswear, undergarments and motion capture suits. 

What are the applications of elastane?

After a detailed introduction to what elastane is and how it is produced, let us delve into what are the various applications of elastane that make it a good fit for various uses. 

The following are the qualities or attributes that are found in elastane: 

  • Resistance to wear and tear
  • Elasticity
  • Resistance to external conditions 
  • Durability
  • Lightweight 
  • No effect of sunlight on fibre 
  • Ease of use 
  • Can be cleaned easily 
  • High colour resistance 
  • Long term use
  • Stretchable fabric 

Owing to these properties, elastane is used in a variety of applications. These include: 

  • Swimwear
  • Exercise wear 
  • Cycling suits
  • Accessories like belts, gloves
  • Bodysuits
  • Skin-tight garments 
  • Skinny jeans 
  • Undergarments 

What is biodegradability?

In order to understand the biodegradability status of elastane, it is important to know what biodegradability is in the first place. 

Biodegradability is the process through which complex waste is converted into simpler substances by the action of microbes. These microbes can be bacteria, fungi, algae, yeast or protozoa. 

These microbes break down the structures of complex waste so that it can become a part of nature again. This conversion is important because if waste is not degraded, it will accumulate in the environment and will cause many issues to human life, animal life and the environment. 

Among these issues, there are: 

  • Global warming
  • GHG emissions
  • Changed weather conditions/patterns
  • Loss of life
  • Destruction of habitats
  • Ozone depletion 
  • Pollution 
  • Loss of agricultural land 
  • Food deprivation 
  • Decreased access to clean water
  • Destruction of aquatic ecosystem
  • Depletion of oxygen in the water ecosystem
  • Deforestation 
  • Soil erosion 

Other than these environmental effects, if waste is not degraded, it will also cause a multitude of detrimental impacts on human health as well including: 

  • Skin allergies
  • Eye issues
  • Neurological issues
  • Cancer
  • Lungs infections 
  • Throat issues
  • Reproductive damage
  • Necrosis 
  • Organ defects
  • Cancers 

What are some examples of biodegradable wastes? 

Examples of biodegradable wastes may include: 

  • Food waste
  • Human waste 
  • Manure Sewage 
  • Hospital waste 
  • Dead animals & Plants 
  • Waste from slaughterhouse 
  • Toilet paper

What are some examples of non-biodegradable wastes? 

Examples of non-biodegradable waste may include: 

  • Plastics 
  • Hazardous substances
  • Pesticides
  • Fertilisers
  • E-wastes
  • Rubbers
  • Polymers
  • Shopping bags 
  • Packaging materials
  • Plastic bottles 
  • Nuclear Wastes

Is Elastane biodegradable?

It has been established that for a substance to be biodegradable, it must be made from natural products because microbes are able to break down such materials. 

In the case of non-natural products, microbes are rendered unable to break down the structures and hence these substances may persist in the environment for a very long time. 

It has also been seen that elastane is made entirely in the lab and no natural material is used in the making of elastance. Therefore, with sheer clarity, it can be concluded that elastane is not biodegradable. 

Microbes are not able to degrade the structure of elastane and as a result, it may accumulate in the environment for hundreds of years. During this, elastane can cause serious issues which have been explored and deliberated in the previous sections of the article. 

Is elastane harmful to the environment? (7 reasons why elastane is harmful) 

There is a general rule of thumb that if a product is not biodegradable, it is harmful to the environment because it may accumulate in the ecosystems and disrupt the natural order and ways of working. 

If wastes are accumulated in ecosystems, there can be countless negative impacts on the ecosystems and the species that are a part of it. 

For example, polymers such as plastics may enter the aquatic ecosystems and may cause depletion of oxygen in those water bodies. As a result, fish might die and the whole food chain may be affected. 

Aquatic animals may engulf these polymers and as a result, these polymers may enter the food chains. Because humans also consume fish, it is very likely that the polymers that enter aquatic and marine ecosystems may end up in our kitchens. 

As per a study, more than 60% of marine and aquatic trash is from non-degrading fibres. 

The use of chemicals is another factor that concerns environmentalists. It has been seen that elastane is produced by using various chemicals. These chemicals may cause soil and water pollution. 

These chemicals may also harm animals and may cause species endangerment and even extinction. Polyurethane is the main component of elastane which is carcinogenic causing cancer in humans. 

Another reason why elastane can not be regarded as eco-friendly is that elastane is produced by the use of non-renewable resources. These resources are linked to fossil fuel consumption. 

Fossil fuels are linked to countless detrimental effects on life and the environment. These may include global warming, unnatural weather patterns, loss of life, pollution, and health-related complications. 

In a nutshell, elastane can not be regarded as eco-friendly because: 

  • It is made from fossil fuels
  • It is made from many chemicals 
  • Polyurethane is the main component of elastane which is carcinogenic 
  • It uses synthetic dyes that are harmful to human health and the environment 
  • It is non-biodegradable
  • It is a major source of microplastics 
  • It is a major source of marine trash 

Is there any silver lining?

It has been confirmed that elastane is neither biodegradable nor eco-friendly. So, the main question remains is there any silver lining to this dark cloud?

The answer is yes. There are some endeavours that may mitigate the harmful effects of elastane. These include: 

  • Some studies have been able to create polyurethane from plant-based oil instead of fossil fuels
  • Some endeavours make use of recycled elastane instead of virgin materials
  • Many endeavours are utilising natural dyes to be used instead of artificial dyes through UV/Ozone treatments. 

Conclusion 

It is concluded that elastane is non-biodegradable because it is made from synthetic materials and also by the use of various chemicals. 

Although elastane causes no stress on plants because it is synthesised in the lab, elastane is bad for the environment and human health because it causes severe human-related and environmental complications.  

There are also some green alternatives and ways to curb these negative effects of elastane on the environment and human health such as using biobased elastane, recycled elastane and natural dyes to dye elastane. 

Frequently Asked Question: Is elastane biodegradable?

How long does elastane take to degrade?

It may take between 20 to 200 years to degrade because it is made of synthetic materials. 

Reference 

  • Senthilkumar, M., Anbumani, N., & Hayavadana, J. (2011). Elastane fabrics–A tool for stretch applications in sports.
  • Özdil, N. (2008). Stretch and bagging properties of denim fabrics containing different rates of elastane. Fibres & Textiles in Eastern Europe, 16(1), 66.
  • Tokiwa, Y., Calabia, B. P., Ugwu, C. U., & Aiba, S. (2009). Biodegradability of plastics. International journal of molecular sciences, 10(9), 3722-3742.

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