Some 380 metric tons of wetsuits end up in landfills in the United Kingdom every year. The English brand Finisterre decided to take up the challenge by creating the first fully recyclable suit in the world.
Finisterre hires "the world's first full-time wetsuit recycler"Divers and surfers have a front row seat when it comes to appreciating the damage caused by ocean pollution. Across the world, more and more of them are going into battle to protect the oceans, launching unifying initiatives – for example Katarina Linczenyiova and Alex Schulze and Andrew Cooper, the founders of 4ocean .
But there is a paradox: their wetsuits are usually made of Neoprene, a synthetic rubber derived from petroleum that is neither recyclable nor biodegradable. Nevertheless, divers and surfers have no real choice: very effective at keeping out the cold while staying flexible, wetsuits have been made in more or less the same way since they were first invented in the 1950s.
Some brands - such as Patagonia – have been trying to substitute more "eco-friendly" materials (Yulex, EicoPrene, etc.) for Neoprene. Others, such as the small French company Téorum, are devising innovative ways to reuse wetsuits. But for Tom Kay, the founder of Finisterre, an English sustainable outdoor clothing brand that is also exploring ways of tackling the issue, it's not enough. There is still no way of recycling a wetsuit at the end of its life.
Difficult but not impossible
Two years ago, the company launched an ambitious R&D program called "Wetsuits from Wetsuits" to develop a wetsuit that would be fully recyclable. Finisterre hired "the world's first full-time wetsuit recycler", Jenny Banks, who is a graduate of the material futures MA at Central Saint Martins in London.
Jenny Banks' job is far from easy. Conventional wetsuits may contain as many as fifteen different materials that are almost impossible to separate. Neoprene is generally mixed with other synthetic rubbers and plastics. It is a thermosetting elastomer, which means that, unlike plastic, it cannot be melted and molded to produce new objects. Then there are the inner and outer polyurethane fabric linings, seams and glue, used to improve performance...
Finisterre's solution was an eminently logical one - design a wetsuit made of a limited number of materials in order to optimize the quality of the rubber and other materials produced at the end of the recycling process. The company has developed a prototype made from a textured biodegradable rubber, which prevents water from getting trapped in the fabric and cooling the wearer.
The result is not perfect and there are still more tests ahead. But despite everything, Tom Kay says it's the most recyclable wetsuit in the world. The company CEO also discovered the chemical recycling process employed by the English company ReNew ELP in a pilot plant in Australia to break down old wetsuits and marine litter and transform them into pyrolytic oil. But as the Guardian newspaper reminds us, these processes also have an environmental impact. Finisterre will therefore conduct a life cycle analysis in order to compare the life cycle of a recycled wetsuit with that of a wetsuit made from virgin materials. And should the recycled wetsuit ever be marketed, Finisterre will have to convince its customers to spend more to protect the planet.
CREDIT: Main picture © Getty Images