Baseball caps are complicated. There are the five hat panels, but they’re also backed with interfacing, grommets punched into the sides for vents. A buckle in back with webbing on each side, a label. A brim made from plastic and fabric to cover it, and thread to sew it all together. In the end about 8 materials go into the typical baseball cap. Then it’s tagged, packed, shipped, purchased, worn for a year or two, then all that stuff, including some recyclable materials, wind up being landfilled. Could we improve this process by changing materials or disposal methods to create a more sustainable hat?
My hat came from a second hand clothing store in San Francisco. It was built from a cotton twill that had the best pattern on it that I have ever seen. It was my colors: green, gray, black and white, and the print looked like a camouflage pattern from a distance, but up close you could see it was a print of frolicking nudes. This was a conversation starter that could also keep the rain and sun off of my face. Sold for 10 bucks.
The hat was produced by The Quiet Life, a brand that draws on west cost skate culture to inspire it's lifestyle clothes and accessories. TQL was founded by Andy Mueller during 1997 in Los Angles. He also produces designs for Lakai Ltd. Shoes & Girl Skateboards.
The Quiet Life is an urban brand, it's sold mostly in LA and San Francisco, and you can get it in NYC too. These cities all have comprehensive recycling programs, so is there a way to take advantage of that when disposing of the hat? What if the hat was made only of plastics, could it go into the recycling bin?
We could make that, but these cities only recycle ridgid plastics, films, and fabrics would get caught in the machinery, and regardless, just because it's plastic doesn't mean it's recylced the same way. The brim support is High Desnsity Polyethylene, but the clip is nylon or acetyl. The webbing is polypropylene, but the brim fabric is polyester. These different plastics all need to be sorted to be recycled, that means someone would need to completely dissasemble the hat before recycling.
Textile recycling programs are available in all of these cities. Clothing and accecories can be resold, and when they're too worn out to be sold, they can be downcycled into insulation or stuffing. Insulation seems like a great new life for your old socks, who else would ever wear those? but imagine what happens to all of the rigid components. The buckle, the grommets, the brim support, They go through a shredder with all the fabric and get cut up into little sharp bits of plastic and metal - great for uphostering!
The last municipal recycling program I considered was composting. If the only textile used in the hat was cotton, or some other natural fiber, and compostable resins could replace the ridgid components, then boom, you have a compostable hat. LA, SF and NYC all have municipal composting programs, and the idea of composting your hat when it gets too worn or out of style could appeal to people. Here's what I propose:
Compostable Bast Fiber Fabric
FREITAG F-ABRIC is a linen & hemp blend that equally durable as a cotton/poly twill, and is also fully compostable. Linen & hemp cultivation is much less damaging to the environment than cotton cultivation because it doesn’t require intensive use of pesticides and fertilizers.
Compostable Resin Clip
BASF Ecovio is a new injection moldable compostable resin with a mineral component to provide stiffness. Ecovio is certified compostable by the United States Composting Council. This component will likely be the last to fully break down.
Sewn Panel Vents
Many hats use steel or aluminum grommets as panel vents. Sewn vents remove the need for energy intensive steel. Steel rivets could be recycled, but in practice are not because they cannot be removed. Using FREITAG F-ABRIC linen & hemp thread for this operation will guarantee that the vents will last just as long as the rest of the hat
The HDPE brim support accounts for 25% percent of the hat by weight. HDPE is highly recyclable, but the part is not removable during disposal. The result is that a valuable recyclable is landfilled. Mycofoam by Ecovative is lighter than HDPE and fully compostable. Mycofoam is currently marketed as a cost competitive replacement for expanded styrene packing materials.
HDPE has excellent physical properties for a brim support. It is thin, flexible and waterproof. To match the functionality of the HDPE brim support. Just holding Mycofoam, it quickly becomes obvious that it’s original formulation is thin, and somewhat flexible, though much more prone to breakage than HDPE. Mycofoam’s water resistant nature isn’t as obvious, but Ecovative has already had success with Mycofoam in salt water buoy applications, and it lasts for 2-3 months in continual contact with harsh salt water. More research needs to be done to assess the material’s suitability to routine home laundering or dry cleaning.
An alternative to Ecovative’s original Mycofoam is a pure mushroom foam that the company is developing. It behaves much more like low density urethane foam, and contains no woody material. This new mycofoam will be more flexible, less breakable, and thinner too.
Life Cycle Analysis (LCA)
A Life-Cycle Analysis Showed that the cotton twill made up the majority of the environmental impact; second was the flight I took with the hat to get it from San Francisco to New York; third were the four steel rivets used as vents.
Conventional cotton growing practices require a great deal of water, according ot the WWF, over 20,000 liters per 1 kg of fabric. The cotton farming industry also uses a disproportionate amount of agricultural chemicals. 24 percent of global insecticide sales are to cotton farms, yet only 2% of the worlds cropland are planted with cotton (WWF, Cotton Farming). Chemical production and use damages environmental and human health, while speeding global warming. High water usage diminishes non-renewable underground water reserves, and leads to toxic runoff when combined with agricultural chemicals.
By simply replacing cotton fabric with a more sustainable alternative, the baseball cap makes a dramatically lower impact on life and resources. The second largest impact, came from the steel grommets used as vents. While the impact of the steel was generally small compared to that of the cotton, steel uses a great deal of water in the mining and manufacturing process. Steel grommets are used because they look and feel more expensive than sewn vents, yet the grommets will outlast the cotton that makes up most of the hat. Sewn vents are less impactful and will not outlast the rest of the hat.
By changing the fabric from cotton to bast fiber manufactured by Freitag and by removing the steel rivets, the environmental footprint is significantly smaller compared to the cotton hat.