Plastic materials have been one of the greatest twentieth century revolutions. The first polymers date back to the second half of the previous century, though it was only after World War II that these materials began to assume vital importance for industrial societies. During the war, the shortage of steel, glass and wood caused American industry to search for new materials that could meet the country’s engineering, production and market demands. Due to its malleability, resistance and structural durability, plastic offered technical solutions in important fields such as engineering and material sciences. This, combined with low cost and the opportunity to mass-produce common-use objects, has rapidly transformed this material into the symbol of modern consumption.
There is however another side to the coin: due to its chemical structure, once dispersed in the environment, plastic objects last much longer than other organic substances, which are decomposed by specific microorganisms. This has a strongly negative impact on living beings. Currently, marine ecosystems are the most damaged by plastic materials and waste pollution not only because many animals become trapped but also because, broken down into smaller parts due to the effect of salt and UV rays, they are ingested, thus entering the food chain.
The damage is not only environmental. According to Trucost, a company that makes economic evaluations related to environmental sustainability and the hidden costs of resource use, the price of plastic waste scattered at sea is approximately of $13 billion per year. The evaluation examines negative impact of tourist waste on fishing, public health and biodiversity, though if social and environmental costs are also to be considered, the amount soars to $139 billion per year.
From the 1950s to the present day, around 6.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced, of which only 9% has been recycled. The remaining 91% is made up of 12% incinerated waste and 79% buried in land-fill sites or dispersed in the environment. Currently in Europe, the percentage of recycled plastic waste is approximately 30%. However, the European Union has already promulgated a plan to progressively turn all plastic packaging into recyclables by 2030.
As mentioned above, several types of polymer are used by the industry as plastic materials, some of which possess potentially harmful characteristics for public health and the environment. For example, along with polypropylene and polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride is one of the most implemented polymer plastics worldwide. Also known as PVC, it is light, cheap, has good mechanical resistance and is durable. Moreover, it is employable both in rigid and flexible forms, a feature which makes it perfect for producing sanitary instruments but also electrical isolators, pipes and other construction materials, as well as being used in the apparel industry and elsewhere.
However, like all plastic materials, PVC is extremely polluting. Lead – a poisonous metal that if inhaled or ingested interferes with the functioning of certain essential enzymes for the organism – is found amongst the additives used in its production. This is why since 2015, the members of the European Stabiliser Producers Association have abandoned the use of lead as a stabiliser in polymer plastics. Currently, several initiatives are being undertaken to improve the recovery of PVC and avoid its dispersal in the environment; though the problem does not consist only of disposal. The production of this material requires a series of chemical processes, each of which releases substances capable of accumulating in the ground, atmosphere and water. For example, the treatment of another additive, chlorine, releases dioxins – this polluting agent is also known to have carcinogenic effects. This is why PVC cannot be incinerated.
If in some cases this material may be replaced by “traditional” alternatives – such as wood for fixtures, cement or copper for pipelines and synthetic polyamides like nylon instead of standard electrical insulators – its replacement is harder in certain apparel where PVC is used for waterproofing. Timberland is the leader in technical wear – another reason why in recent years, it felt the duty to invest in high quality products more than other companies in the field. It has abandoned many components and industrial processes which may have hazardous effects on the environment. By 2020, one of Timberland’s objectives is to completely remove PVC and its derivatives from the brand’s products in favour of other materials such as water-based adhesive polymers. Water-based adhesive polymers are acquired from a base of rubber compounds, to which non-toxic additives like synthetic hydrocarbon resins are added.
In 2013 8.9% of Timberland’s footwear contained PVC elements, whereas by 2014 the percentage decreased to 1.8%. In 2016, the aim to substitute polyvinyl chloride had already met substantial success, with the result that the footwear and apparel line Timberland PRO® was 98% PVC-free. In the next two years Timberland also foresees a 100% PVC-free footwear production.
Reaching new standards in the manufacture of these products obviously poses real and ongoing challenges in terms of technology and logistics. However, for Timberland this means putting environmental safeguards and public health first, rejecting the use of potentially dangerous materials even though they prove to be extremely versatile.