Icebreaker’s Merino Wool Biodegradation Trial

More and more Outdoor and SnowSports Industry companies are attempting to tackle the challenge of what to do with old and unwanted gear.  Nike and Converse have the Reuse-a-shoe program.  Patagonia has Common Threads, just recently introduced to Australia.  In the US, Chaco offers to extend the life of its sandals by providing an in-house repair centre.  In the UK, Recycle Outdoor Gear is an online effort to sell, swap or donate pre-loved outdoor gear.  In New Zealand, the nationwide retailer R&R Sports got their start selling used outdoor gear through a shop front.  A number of companies globally are recycling plastic bottles to use in synthetic apparel.

A lot of gear, unfortunately, still ends up in landfill, causing problems by contaminating soil and groundwater from the byproducts of that gear, introducing non-biodegrading elements to the outdoor environment, subsequently damaging the quality of life of our fauna, flora and the pristine nature of our surroundings.  Ironically, there is some outdoor gear, made of natural fibres, that actually do more good than harm when buried in the ground.

New Zealand’s Icebreaker has performed an experiment on one of their Merino Wool garments to demonstrate the benefits of choosing a natural fibre in relation to the end of life of apparel products.  Icebreaker has captured a snapshot of this “Biodegradation Trial” on film, available for viewing on YouTube.

Wool is made of an insoluble protein called Keratin, with a cross-linked structure that makes it naturally resistant to water, acids, mildew, and even sunlight.  According to Australia’s top research institute, CSIRO, wool is only susceptible to a few specific insects, such as carpet beetles and webbing clothes moths, so the garments won’t degrade while you’re wearing it if you keep it clean and stored in a dryer environment.   In soil, however, mildew and rot allow micro-organisms to attack the weak points of Keratin’s cross-linked structure.  Wool then biodegrades over time, slowly releasing nitrogen based nutrients and sulfur into the soil that can be as good as some fertilisers.  Wool is often included in websites and blogs discussing composting tips.

Of course, end of life environmental considerations are only one aspect of the overall impact of manufacturing outdoor gear, which requires resources and energy use to make.  The dyes, stitching and information tags also need to be considered, preferably made from non-toxic and natural origins, as well.  Some natural fibres, however, such as Icebreaker’s Merino Wool , at least provide an alternative to recycling synthetics.  And from that point of view, are worth considering when purchasing outdoor gear.

Don Jurries

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