14 institutions from eight countries work in coordination on the Glaukos European project,which, within the framework of the H2020 call, seeks circular solutions for the textile industry. The Ecotoxicology and Marine Pollution team, Ecotox, from the Coastal Ecology group in the Marine Research Centre of the Uvigo, is the only Spanish representative in this initiative that aims to develop biodegradable and biorecyclable textile fibers and coatings for fishing gears and clothes. The ultimate goal is to dramatically decrease plastic pollution from the ocean, as “abandoned, lost, or discarded fishing gears represents approximately 27% of all marine litter found in European seas, about 11,000 tonnes per year that enter the marine environment every year. Synthetic fibers, added to the remains of nets and other devices, from which much of the clothing is made, are also a main source of pollution by microfiber in marine environments, since the use and wear of the clothes make that the fibers end up in the sea.
Zsófia Kádár, global coordinator of the Glaukos project, explains that the project starts this month with “eagerness” to work on “one of the biggest problems that our society is facing with ocean pollution. According to the latest studies, the marine microplastic concentration was highly underestimated and plastic losses can only be mitigated if polymers prone to recycling and biodegradation are developed quickly and completely. Glaukos’ ambition is to open the way for this transition and we have all the ingredients to be successful”.
The four-year project has a total budget of 4.8 million euros, of which the European Commission finances 4.1 million through the Bio-Based Industries Joint Undertaking (BBI JU), a public entity -private between the EU’s H2020 program and the Bio-based Industries Consortium (BIC). The subsidy that corresponds to UVigo is 411,500 euros. The consortium is coordinated by the Belgian entity Bio Base Europe Pilot Plant and includes companies, associations, clusters, research centres and universities from Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, Italy and Turkey.
Bio-based textile fibers and coatings for the needs of the 21st century
The fourteen project partners will work over 48 months to redesign the entire life cycle of textiles used in fishing gear and clothing. The key, explain the researchers from Vigo involved (Ricardo Beiras, Óscar Nieto and Beatriz Noya), “is the design of polymers to mitigate pollution caused by fiber fragments.” For this, the project will be based on the “activated biodegradability” of these new polymers, to increase the degradation rate of the microplastics present in Glaukos materials, at least 100 times compared to conventional microplastics”. At the same time, bio-recycling processes will be developed to encourage the collection of textiles at the end of their useful life, reducing the pollution they cause. Furthermore, thanks to this initiative, it will also be possible to reduce the length of the supply chain “by scaling a disruptive fermentation process that, based on European bio-raw materials, allows the production of base molecules whose combinations will later give rise to Glaukos polymers”. Thanks to this process, it will be possible to increase the bio-based content of Glaukos textile products by at least 50%, they emphasize.
In addition, within the framework of Glaukos, ecological coatings for fishing gears with a higher bio-based content will also be developed and will work to reconcile the above-described product characteristics with technical performance and durability, ensuring effective and long-term use, both textile products and fishing gears, significantly reducing their carbon and plastic footprint.
The project partners have planned to bring their results closer to the final purchase, for which connections will be established with stakeholders to involve users of the clothing and fishing industry. Efforts will also be made to increase green consumer awareness through, for example, marketing initiatives.
UVigo, focused on ‘end-of-life solutions’
Within the framework of the project, Ecotox researchers will focus on ‘solutions for the end of life’, a work package that is divided into two blocks and led by the UVigo team and the Research Center Jülich (FZJ), to work on biodegradability and bio-recycling. Regarding biodegradability, the scientists explain that “field tests are an expensive and slow way of evaluating the biodegradability and ecotoxicity of textile products, such as fishing gears. Analyzing the release of microplastics and evaluating their effect on ecosystems is particularly difficult”. To advance in this field, Ecotox developed a method to accelerate the release of microplastics from fishing gears, which allows evaluating the biodegradability and ecotoxicity of microplastics in the laboratory and in mesocosms. In this sense, they recall that “the vast majority of ecological additives and coatings for fishing gears and textiles are derived from petroleum, being one of the final objectives of the Glaukos project to produce coatings with a minimum biological base content of 30 %, which would represent a great advance in this field”.
Ecotox will evaluate the ecotoxicity of the ingredients to guide the selection of the most ecological coatings, since recent research carried out by the UVigo group demonstrated that “many polymeric additives used during the polymerization and composition process are toxic to marine ecosystems”. Finally, progress will be made in the development and integration of methods to evaluate the biodegradability and ecotoxicity of microplastics in aquatic and marine environments in order to standardise them.