Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Greenwashing Blue Jeans into Plastic

It's funny how much greenwashing can occur from good intentions and how it worsens with time. Take for instance, this attempt (a Kickstarter effort) to make plastic using recycled blue jean fibers as a reinforcing agent.
The resulting material is named Denimite (catchy enough) and has that classic indigo blue color. The composite is made by mixing an epoxy in with the fibers and then heating and compressing the material in a mold until the epoxy has reacted. The low viscosity resins undoubtedly soak into the cotton fibers before they react, thereby ensuring a good strong interface between the resin and the fibers, an essential feature to make the fibers/matrix a composite and not just a filled system.

The environmental angle is that the jeans are otherwise destined for the landfill and the epoxy is somewhat sustainably produced [1]. The Kickstarter is looking for $10,000 for a larger press (a 30" x 120" - that's 10 feet long!). In my mind, that is only a small part of what they need. Molds would be a bigger concern as they cost far more and each one needs to be custom made. Customers typically pay for them (so that they can take them and run off to a cheaper competitor when they find one!), but finding customers is a chicken-and-egg thing. Compression molding is not a fast process and that hurts the economics further. Also, the entrepreneurs are looking to get into countertops, an area that seems to have few demands but is deceptively challenging. [2] I wish them luck in their venture; they are going to need it.

Once the media got wind of this kickstarter, the greenwashing took off. The Kickstarter was originally entitled: "Denimite: Where good jeans go when they die". That's fine and dandy. But then picked it up and it became "Denimite repurposes blue jeans into a "green" material". At least there are quotation marks around the word "green". But then called it "Recycled Jeans Become Green Plastics in New Process" and we're off to the races. The denim has never become plastic - it is merely encased in another plastic that is only somewhat green (and compression molding is hardly a new process). This greenwashing was then repeated verbatim in the echochamber by

And that's how things get hyped. A simple project with good intentions and a green-ish story of compression molding a denim/epoxy material becomes a transformation of blue jeans, via a new process, into a green plastic.

[1] It would be ironic if the epoxy was based on bisphenol A, and many of them are. But further, why use an epoxy? A totally bio-based (meth)acrylate would be greener option, would possibly cure faster and show many/all of the same mechanical properties.

[2] In my last job, I worked on a project for a client who made countertops that were loaded with minerals. They had a number of issues that were a failure of the resin that I would not have expected. It was an eye opening experience.

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