I’ll be the first to admit that wearing recycled plastic bottles on my feet really does something for my fashion ego. I can now stroll down the streets of Cornwall with a lighter conscious (and a slight hole in my purse). Last year, I treated myself to pair of Converse from their Renew range which is made entirely from recycled polymers. Every trainer bears the collection’s critical reminder: life is too short to waste.
Converse aren’t the only ones jumping on the bandwagon. Outdoor clothing brand, Patagonia, claims to be the first outdoor clothing manufacturer to transform trash into fleece. Ohoy Swimwear collects ocean plastic and fishing nets and regenerates the waste into luxurious Italian fabric. Meanwhile, Girlfriend Collective* sell bras and leggings transformed from post-consumer bottles. Who knew plastic trash could be so fashionable?
So fashionable, in fact, that an article by Wired hailed recycled plastics as the future of fashion. And at first glance, it is easy to see why. In just six decades, humans have produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic – of which only 9% is estimated to have ever been recycled. The rest normally finds its way to landfill where it will sit for hundreds of years. Synthetic, plastic-based fibres like polyester, lycra and nylon are commonplace in our clothes, and often face a similar fate. It is estimated that polyester accounts for 60% of new garments worldwide.
Recycling plastic into wearable fashion is part of a commendable effort to de-litter our planet. Regenerated synthetic fibres have a lower ecological footprint than their virgin counterparts, requiring less resources and energy in the production process. They also possess a stretch property that is perfect for swimming costumes and activewear. In this case, recycled is always better than brand new.
Is recycled plastic really the solution?
But for all its merits, I’m sceptical that recycled plastic is the solution to the industry’s waste epidemic. The most glaring problem is microplastics. A study carried out by Dr Imogen Napper at the University of Plymouth calculated that, when a synthetic garment is washed, it can shed up to 700,000 individual microfibres. Another report estimated that, for every 100,000 Patagonia jackets washed, between 8 and 35 kg of microfibers could be released into the environment – the mass equivalent of 1,600 to 7,000 plastic grocery bags. That’s a lot of tiny synthetic fibres which some scientists claim is the biggest source of plastic in the ocean. These toxic microfibres are finding their way into our waterways and eventually end up in our food chain. As I’m writing this, microplastics have even been found in the placentas of unborn babies. So, we’re not just wearing plastic; we’re ingesting it too.
Part of the solution may lie in the guppy bag: a relatively affordable investment designed to capture the microfibres during each wash cycle (though of course the fibres still have to be disposed of somewhere). A cheaper alternative is becoming more mindful of how often we wash our clothes. We’re all guilty of only wearing a t-shirt once before chucking it in the laundry basket. Underwear and gym wear aside, most of our clothes can be reworn multiple times before needing an appointment with your washing machine.
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But even if we commit to more frugal washing cycles, what happens when these clothes are discarded? In the age of disposable fashion, clothes are worn a shocking average of seven times before being thrown away. While a plastic bottle can be recycled many times, we lack the technology to continually recycle clothes made from recycled plastic, as each process shortens and weakens the polyester fibres. So, the chances are that these recycled, non-biodegradable clothes will also end up in landfill. We need to be advocating for greater circularity, not looking for short-term solutions to extend the life of a product by one.
There’s also the issue of recycling itself
In Europe, only around 30% of general plastic waste is collected for recycling while some countries lack the waste management infrastructure to encourage such a scheme. If there’s increased demand for recycled plastic fashion, this will likely be met by producing more virgin plastic, with the added justification that it will later be recycled into a new pair of sunglasses.
In their 2017 Fashion at the Crossroads report, Greenpeace questioned the fashion industry’s priorities. Plastic pollution is undoubtedly an important planetary issue, but it shouldn’t distract from the high carbon emissions, the polluted waters, the toxic chemicals, the deforestation, and desertification that the fashion industry also drives. Of equal concern is the brands launching more recycled lines to distract from such truths. If trash clothing is in, greenwashing is even more so.
Take ‘real-world textiles solution’ manufacturer, Unifi, for example. They boast that their REPREVE® nylon fibre is made from ‘pre-consumer waste’ and recycled from manufacturing scraps. As one of the largest virgin nylon producers in the world, this is no mean feat. Conventionally, it is very expensive to recycle nylon, both because recovered nylon waste is in short supply and the recycling process is very long and complicated. Though some may view Unifi’s regenerated nylon as a zero-waste utopia, the reality is far different. The availability of REPREVE® nylon is totally dependent on the production of virgin nylon fibres, crude oil extraction and all. Unifi claim that, for every pound of REPREVE® nylon produced, the equivalent of 0.6 gallons of gasoline is conserved. While it may be true that using up fabric offcuts eliminates material waste, it doesn’t eliminate the environmental footprint of producing the fibre in the first place.
Indeed, the entire ‘recycled’ premise is misleading if the virgin nylon never existed as a garment or product to be recycled. Unlike its rival nylon fibre ECONYL®, Unifi’s recycled nylon yarn isn’t sourced from landfill or ocean waste. Among the brands Unifi are supplying, Mara Hoffman and Hard Rock both incorporate REPREVE® into their collections. This is more likely to be the polyester-derived variant, however, which is recycled from plastic bottles. And as this article has explored, both fibres are not without their problems. Any marketing claim to the contrary is textbook greenwashing.
Greenpeace also doubt that such short-term waste management strategies really get to the heart of the problem. The big, ugly problem is that we are consuming fashion at a rate that far exceeds our planet’s ability to cope. We need to massively slow down our fashion consumption, and fast.
Well that certainly takes the glory out of my latest recycled fashion purchase!
Converse’s intention to design waste out of its supply chain may be there, but it’s probably misplaced. I also won’t be supporting Converse in the future, owing to a lack of transparency around their labour practices.
Of course, recycled plastic clothing isn’t the worst idea in the world. It’s definitely the lesser of two evils – the evil here being virgin plastic. But for recycled polyester clothing to exist, there needs to be a constant flow of virgin plastic to be recycled – and Coca Cola certainly doesn’t need any more incentive to produce 200,000 bottles every minute!
That’s not to say that recycled fashion in its entirety isn’t promising, but we’re still a long way off yet. Despite innovations in recycled wool, cashmere and cotton, less than 1% of used material is recycled into new clothing. Recycled plastic, it would seem, isn’t the one shining solution to the fashion industry after all.