Spandex is Elastic but the Environment is Not

August 10, 2022 

by Christina Dang

5 minute read

Whenever I look at the label of my clothes, I often see spandex as part of the content in the material. Soon, I realized that any stretch fabric would have spandex or LYCRA® in the content, from socks to skinny jeans to swimwear. I was curious to know how many pieces of my clothing are made with spandex. As soon as I started, I realized that it would take a lot of time and energy to itemize my entire closet, so I decided to focus on my bras and activewear.

 

WHAT I FOUND

I own 31 bras and activewear, and 100% of these clothes are made with spandex. I found that most of these items were made with less than 25% of spandex, and all of them are a blend of 2 or more different fibers. Spandex is widely used because its stretchy property provides fit and comfort. I can’t imagine my life without this flexible fiber, so I want to know what impact this beloved fiber has on the environment.

 

What is Spandex?

Spandex is a man-made elastomeric polyurethane fiber that can stretch about 500 to 610 percent of its size and bounce back to its original length. The spandex fiber is made with two segments, named soft and hard segments (see figure). The soft and hard segments work collaboratively to create the flexible quality of spandex. When stretched, the coiled structure of the soft segments can extend more than 200% to their original length, and the hard segments prevent fiber breakage. The extended soft segments slip back into their original configuration when the pull is released.

 

 

Are Lycra, Spandex, and Elastane the same?

I’ve noticed the names Lycra, and Elastane show up when I researched spandex. It turns out that this elastomeric polyurethane fiber has three names. Elastane is a generic form of the elastic fiber. Spandex is the brand name for elastane material, and LYCRA® is a branded elastane fiber and fabric by Dupont.  


Is Spandex Sustainable?

Spandex is loved by many because of its elastic property, but when so many of our clothing has this material, we find that our environment can not bounce back as fast as our favorite stretchy fabric. Let’s go over my findings on the production and consumption of spandex. 

Fossil Fuel Pollution

Fossil fuel pollution starts from oil extraction and fracking. The extraction processes can generate air and water contaminations, and harm local communities. Transporting fuels from the mine or well can cause air pollution and lead to serious accidents and spills. When fossil fuels are burned, nitrogen oxide and other toxins are released into the atmosphere and contribute to global warming emissions. 

Harsh Chemicals

The production of spandex is very chemical-heavy, and it is processed with synthetic dyes, which can compromise water quality, disrupt plant growth, aquatic life, and make their way into the food chain.

Non-Biodegradable

This plastic-based fabric is resistant to microorganisms that would break down the plastics into organic matter. In a landfill, spandex usually takes 20-200 years to break down, making this fiber non-biodegradable. While it sits in the landfill, man-made fabrics could release toxic chemicals. 

Microplastic Pollution

After sitting in landfills for a few years, spandex would break down to microplastics. These tiny particles often contaminate the water system and end up in our soil, oceans, tap water, and eventually our bodies. Even washing your clothes made with spandex can release microplastics stealthily into our oceans. 


Final Thoughts

Spandex is truly everywhere and is hard to live without because it brings us comfort, compression, and shape. We love that spandex is elastic, but we know the environment is not. 


Spandex is a part of our daily lives, and it is incredibly hard to avoid it.  When we make a clothing purchase, it is very hard to decipher the opaque origin and process of how and where our products are made. However, alternative options are becoming available.


Some great alternatives worth looking into are Roica and recycled spandex. The reason I am interested in &HER is because of its stance on sustainability. &HER is on a journey to create  product circularity and redesigning a production process to limit negative impact on the environment. &HER uses Roica because it is a unique elastic yarn that degrades in the environment without releasing any harmful substances. This is verified and tested by Hohenstein “Environmental compatibility” certificate. 


Currently, there is no infrastructure for us to properly recycle or upcycle our clothing made with spandex, so it is up to us to decide how we can reduce the negative impact on the environment. &HER is building products for consumers to feel good, look good, and do good by continuing to research sustainability and create a path to circularity.

 

About Me

 Hello, my name is Christina Dang and I am a contributing writer for &HER. As each blog post is being made I am intensively researching and learning about different fibers as I go. My goal as a contributing writer is to share my thoughts and knowledge to other consumers. 
I am a student attending Virginia Commonwealth University as a marketing major with a concentration in product and brand management and a minor in fashion merchandising. I am most interested in women’s fashion branding because clothes make me feel very confident in myself even if I am having a bad day. It automatically lifts my mood and inspires me to be productive during the day. I want to help women find their own style and make them feel confident everyday. 

 

Citations

Development of Environmentally Friendly Spandex Products and launch of Roica™ EF Recycled Spandex in Japan. AsahiKasei. (n.d.). Retrieved July 12, 2022, from https://www.asahi-kasei.com/news/2016/e160419.html

Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). EPA. Retrieved July 12, 2022, from https://www.epa.gov/nutrientpollution/sources-and-solutions-fossil-fuels

Lebby, S. (2021, May 12). What is elastane, and is it sustainable? Treehugger. Retrieved July 12, 2022, from https://www.treehugger.com/what-is-elastane-and-is-it-sustainable-5116805#citation-4

Lycra fabric, or spandex, what is it and is it and sustainable? TRVST. (2022, May 15). Retrieved July 12, 2022, from https://www.trvst.world/sustainable-living/fashion/lycra-fabric-and-sustainability/

Lycra vs spandex vs Elastane: What is the difference? Silver Bobbin. (2021, July 8). Retrieved July 12, 2022, from https://silverbobbin.com/lycra-vs-spandex-vs-elastane/ 

Textileblog. (2022, May 27). Characteristics and uses of spandex fiber. Textile Blog. Retrieved August 10, 2022, from https://www.textileblog.com/properties-and-uses-of-spandex-fiber/