Felt is a hugely versatile fabric. Name an industry and felt can more than likely be found there – from construction to hat-making! Since it is such a commonly used material we must consider its environmental impact. Is felt eco-friendly or not? The answer here is not straightforward. It largely depends on whether it is the synthetic or natural variety. Let’s take a look…
What is felt made from?
Felt is a dense fabric – it is made from the compression and matting of fibers. Felt material has been around for a long time, it is one of the oldest-known fabrics. However, what it is made from has changed significantly over time.
You can tell a lot about the ‘green’ credentials of an item by knowing what it is made from. In past years, felt was exclusively made from natural fibers – wool was the fiber of choice, but it was also made from cotton and silk. These days felt is increasingly made to include synthetic fibers such as polyester, nylon or acrylic. It can also be a blend of both synthetic and natural fibers.
Natural felt is biodegradable and can be composted
An item is said to be biodegradable if can be broken down into its component parts by micro-organisms such as bacteria. Natural felt is biodegradable and can essentially be returned to nature. Not everything that is biodegradable can be composted, but natural felt fits the bill. Providing you with a nutrient-rich fertilizer and diverting it from landfill – a win-win! Unfortunately, synthetic felt is not biodegradable – since it contains plastic it will not be broken down by bacteria. It will break up into smaller pieces which, incidentally, can cause havoc in the environment.
Composting a biodegradable item, such as natural felt, is much better than sending it to landfill. It is a common misconception that things biodegrade at the same rate in landfill as they would in nature. This is simply not true – landfill does not present optimal conditions for items to biodegrade due to limited airflow and moisture. Composting is the best option, if you have the facilities to do so.
Wool felt is renewable
Wool, the most well-known natural fiber associated with felt, is totally renewable resource. Sheep are sheared, typically, once a year and the fleece is used to make wool. This, in turn, is made into felt. Their fleece then re-grows ready for next year. It really is that simple! Environmental impact is minimal here – but the ethics are questioned by many.
Felt is durable
Both synthetic and natural felt is durable. It is resistant to wear and tear, so in most applications it does not need to be replaced often. This is great news for the environment – items that can be used for a long time reduce waste which could, ultimately, end up in landfill. As mentioned previously, avoiding landfill is key – it can take a significant time to biodegrade there.
But it is not all good news….
Synthetic felt supports the fossil fuel industry
Nylon and polyester, some of the main contributors to synthetic felt, are derived from crude oil. Fossil fuels are non-renewable. When extracting them from the environment they can have a significant environmental impact including water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and soil degradation. Synthetic felt is clearly not the most significant item made from fossil fuels – however, it does contribute to the problem.
Lots of resources needed to make synthetic fibers
The process of turning fibers into felt may not be hugely energy intensive, but manufacture of the synthetic fibers can be. For example, the manufacture of nylon, a component of some synthetic felts, is extremely energy intensive. The energy is unlikely to come from clean sources either! Large amounts of water are also required, especially in the phase where the fibers are cooled. But the impact does not stop there. It also causes air pollution. Nitrous oxide is released during the process due to the need for adipic acid production. For each kilo of adipic acid produced approximately 30 grams of nitrous oxide is released. This will contribute significantly to climate change.
The bottom line
Felt from natural sources can be considered eco-friendly. Wool felt is biodegradable, renewable and durable. The main concerns about wool felt are concerned with the ethical issues of using animals for our gain, rather than environmental issues. Synthetic felt, on the other hand, does not have great ‘green’ credentials. It contains plastic so it will not biodegrade. Producing the man-made fibers used to make synthetic felt come with their own environmental impacts. Our advice? Although expensive, where possible opt for natural felts only.