Planetary Reasons

With Pollution from Textiles Top of Mind, the Environment (too) is a Designer’s Client

If you’ve ever scooped up a mouthful of ocean water, chances are the taste on your tongue was attributable to more than just salt and microscopic sea creatures. It may have included plastic microfibers.

For obvious offenders—such as plastic bags, straws and soda rings—the issue of marine pollution is plain to see. But when studying the microscopic composition of sea water, scientists find an abundance of micro-plastics, in some cases including up to 80% fibrous material—mostly from textiles. While it’s likely that the vast majority come from clothes (via washing), the same pollutants are in construction waste stemming from refurbished architectural interiors. These days, with everything from old carpets and draperies to furniture coverings ending up in landfills, designers find themselves with more than one client for every project; one of them is the environment.

“Unfortunately, waste is an inevitable part of our industry,” says Alyssa Crough, an interior designer for Moseley Architects. “But we should strive to be the leaders of reducing waste in construction and design as much as possible. I think that if we truly want to call ourselves leaders of sustainability, we need to practice sustainable habits in our personal and professional lives.”

Crough’s conviction for environmental responsibility began in college, she says, when, after realizing she was part of a larger problem, she started a clothes swap and recycling program. When she joined Moseley Architects in August 2016, that focus carried over to her design work. In 2020, at the urging of Moseley Architects’ leadership, she gave a firm-wide presentation on the environmental impacts of textiles. Her peers described the event as “an eye opener.”

Crux of the Problem

According to officials with the Council for Textile Recycling, the average U.S. citizen throws away 70 pounds of textiles each year. The latest estimates show that two thirds of that waste ends up in landfills, leading to around 25 billion pounds annually. (As they say: “That’s billion with a B.”) Meanwhile, the standard degradation rate for typical polyester materials is around 6%. At that rate, some textiles take nearly a century to biodegrade. But the issue begins long before their disposal.

Experts say materials such as nylon and polyester also produce copious amounts of greenhouse gases in manufacturing, as well as require immense amounts of water and energy to produce. All-natural materials aren’t exempt from environmental impacts either, as farms producing cotton and other fibrous plant materials consume high levels of water and, in some cases, use an abundance of pesticides and herbicides to protect their yields.

At the same time, manufacturers have begun to produce friendlier solutions, Crough says, adding, “It’s an interior designer’s job to be aware of those products and to stay up to date with these new options.” For instance, by incorporating a biocatalyst that activates biodegradation when subjected to the moisture and microbes in landfills, one manufacturer, Duvaltex Clean Impact Textiles, produces products from recycled polyester that are designed to be biodegradable, bringing degradation to around 3-1/2 years. That’s just one example. “There are so many options I can fit into our designs in which 50% of the fiber content is made out of plastic bottles,” Crough says. But even those materials don’t preclude the issue of waste.

An obvious answer includes replacing fabrics with other, sometimes more permanent, materials. It is an interior designer’s primary duty “to create functional, safe, and aesthetically pleasing spaces for our clients,” Crough says, and it isn’t always in the best interests of building occupants to reduce the number of textiles. Working out of Moseley Architect’s office in Baltimore, Crough serves the firm’s senior living sector, where design choices have a heavy influence on quality of life and textiles provide a more home-like aesthetic. For this reason, “Projects tend to utilize a lot of fabrics and it can be challenging for us to reduce the amount we’re specifying,” she says. A development might include numerous dining spaces—each designed to have its own unique aesthetic for a sense of variety. “We’re constantly ordering carpet samples, textile samples and other materials to ensure we’re creating these very defined spaces,” she says. Therein lies a major source of waste for the interior design industry, even before construction begin: samples.

“At the end of a project, we end up having buckets and bins full of fabrics that we don’t really need,” Crough says. And that’s just one project. “A lot of people just tend to throw those out because that’s what they know,” she explains. But that isn’t the right answer. Instead, Moseley Architects’ Baltimore office donates many of its samples to the interior design program of a nearby college, where students use them for projects and to study materials. The firm also utilizes a free service known as Material Bank, which consolidates samples from a variety of manufacturers, shipping them to designers overnight using carbon-neutral delivery. Meanwhile, those types of services “are not limited to just fabric samples,” she says. “They also have tile, carpet, luxury vinyl and wall coverings.” Return shipping is also free via the same eco-friendly transport.

Admittedly, textile samples are just one small part of the problem but, “I don’t think that people are truly thinking about the whole process and how our actions, when ordering samples, can really have a spiraling and domino effect on waste in general.”

For the bigger issue of waste from renovations, there are also new and better ways for architects and designers to ensure that old textiles end up recycled and not in landfills. Especially when it comes to LEED certified projects, they can specify diversion rates (to recycling centers), but there are also new options for outsourcing that help to ensure those processes. New companies have emerged for which, “Their job is to just clear everything out in bulk, and then bring it back to a warehouse where they divide up what can be recycled and what has to go to landfills,” Crough says. By specifying those services, designers help to ensure that decisions about recycling don’t end up in the hands of contractors.

Obvious Answers

Of course, one key means by which designers can keep textiles out of landfills includes making better selections upfront about lifespan—not only matching the aesthetics of materials to a designed environment, but also matching durability. “It’s really important for us as designers to specify upholstery and fabrics that are durable for their environment,” Crough says, “or else they have to be replaced frequently.”   

For this reason, some of the most effective and readily available tools for preventing waste include ratings and labels. In addition to information about flammability, cleanability and recycled content, every textile carries numerous measurements pertaining to durability, including “double rubs,” which is essentially how many “rubs” it takes for a fabric to break down when other materials are placed against it. For instance, in areas of high traffic, “We typically specify something between 50,000 and 100,000 double rubs,” Crough says, whereas for such things as accent pillows, “we could go down to 30,000 double rubs,” she says. “But that wouldn’t be appropriate for a seat cushion in a lobby.”

When it comes to durability, how materials are dyed is also an important factor. While some traditional means for coloring call for adding dies to finished materials, that method produces wasted dye and consumes copious amounts of water, Crough says. The result is what she describes as a “radish effect,” in which die only permeates the top layer of fibers. A newer, solution-dyed method applies color to raw threads before materials are assembled, saturating each to its core (more like a carrot). The latter method not only ensures color durability as textiles wear, but saturated threads also are less likely to wick up color from other liquids and materials, improving stain resistance.

The Big Picture

In the end, it isn’t any one change that will post the largest impacts, Crough admits, but the sum of the whole that matters. For Moseley Architect’s designers, it’s about, “Utilizing ratings and guides that are provided to us, while also thinking outside of the box about how we can create designs with the environment in mind,” she says. If Moseley Architects can create aesthetically pleasing designs that both save clients’ money and are safe for the environment and the occupants, then their designers serve all their clients—including the environment.