– I love your leggings!
–Thanks, they used to be water bottles.
I’m sure you’ve already heard about clothes made of recycled plastic and how they’re a game-changer in the world of sustainable fashion. Or are they?
When I first heard about all these innovations that allow us to wear recycled plastic I was like YEY. But the more you think about it the less ideal they seem.
On the one hand, making clothes out of recycled plastic is great because it gives plastic a second life instead of letting it rot in a landfill or pollute our oceans. But on the other hand, recycled plastic is still plastic and clothes made with it will have many of the issues that clothes made of virgin plastic have.
Read more: What Are Microplastics? All You Need to Know
Also, falling for greenwashing is really easy. One of the most exploited expressions there is among wanna-be sustainable businesses is “made of x% recycled plastic” – you can find a real-life example in this IG post. So why is this problematic? Keep reading.
What’s the deal with synthetic clothes?
Up to 60% of the clothes in our closets are made of synthetic fibers – you know, acrylic, nylon, polyester,… And, believe it or not, not everyone realizes that synthetic clothes are essentially plastic and that they have a negative impact on the environment.
At the end of the day we’re talking about clothes. How bad can they be?
It seems that synthetic clothes have been the norm for such a long time that we don’t even think twice when it comes to making them the main character of our wardrobes and we find it hard to believe that we’re contributing to plastic pollution just by washing them or that they’ll never truly disappear after we throw them away.
If you want to learn more about sustainable fashion you can go over all the basics in the category Sustainable Fashion 101 or go more into detail by downloading your free Sustainable Fashion Beginner’s Guide here 👇
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How do they make clothes out of plastic bottles?
Recycled PET (rPET for friends and family) is the material used to make these clothes. This is basically the plastic in our plastic bottles and in all the one marked with a number 1 inside the little triangle thingy.
The process to turn bottles into fabric seems pretty straightforward:
- Collecting water bottles
- Cleaning them (also, separating them into different colors and getting rid of the labels)
- Grinding them into little plastic chips
- Melting the chips
- Spinning them into a fine yarn – usually polyester
And then we weave them and turn them into our new sneakers to give them a happy second life.
It sounds like the ecologist fashion dream: we divert plastic from landfills and get new clothes in exchange. Also, the production of rPET emits 75% less CO2 than that of regular polyester.
But, life isn’t simple and neither is this topic. So let’s reaally break it down.
Cons of clothes made of recycled plastic
They’re still made of plastic even if it’s recycled
Which means that the ugly side of plastic use is still there.
Like the mind-blowing fact that when we wash synthetic clothes they shed microplastics that end up in our water streams. Or the fact that once we’re done using them we have to discard them, which is tricky because recycling them is not that easy.
Good news is you can actually do something to wash your clothes without all these unwanted little bastards – you can start by using laundry bags like these ones from Guppyfriend. And if you want to make sure you’re clothes are being recycled correctly, there are many sustainable brands with recycling programs to which you can send your clothes – but remember that recycling should be our last resort and that you can try donating, selling, swapping or upcycling first.
Using recycled plastic is a handy greenwash technique
Have you heard about greenwashing? It’s a truly fascinating (and nasty) topic. The use of recycled plastic in clothes is often used to mislead us and try to make us think we’re making responsible and eco-friendly shopping decisions when we really aren’t.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t celebrate sustainable materials making their way into mainstream fashion, but we should always be careful when it comes to big corporation, mass-producers and fast fashion brands making statements about their “sustainable” collections.
For example, you might have seen tags saying that a piece of clothing contains 56% of recycled plastic. Looks great, looks eco, but was that plastic post-consumer plastic? Will the blend between rPET and other materials make it harder to recycle the garment? So many questions, so little answers.
Plastic can only be recycled a couple of times
In most parts of the world, with our current technology (physical recycling), we can only recycle plastic a couple of times before it becomes unusable. This process makes the plastic fibers shorter and shorter every time they’re recycled until they can’t form strong threads anymore to create proper garments.
This is actually one of the reasons why you will see blends of recycled and virgin plastic: so that the latter makes the former more resistant.
So some things you should ask yourself about before buying rPET clothes are:
- will I be able to use them for a long time?
- is there a sustainable way to dispose of it when I can’t use it anymore?
Again, good news: chemical plastic recycling, a method that could make plastics infinitely recyclable, is becoming more and more popular.
Using recycled plastic is more expensive than using virgin plastic
Everlane, for example, spends 10 to 15 % more using rPET than they would if they worked with virgin plastic. This extra expense may be keeping other companies from plunging into this business.
The reason for this higher price is that not every factory has the tools to work with recycled plastic fibers.
This also means that if more factories offered this and more brands were willing to sell them, the market would become more competitive and the production costs would probably go down (and so would the price for consumers).
Pros of clothes made of recycled plastic
They divert plastic from the landfills
Instead of letting a plastic bottle rot in a landfill, we’re turning it into something useful.
The fashion industry has a massive waste problem, from the clothes we don’t want to wear anymore and just throw away, to massive piles of industrial textile waste. So making clothes from recycled plastic while being mindful of their not-so-good parts, and of the way we produce and consume can certainly help.
Of course, they might not be the final solution to all our waste problems, but we have to start somewhere.
Read more: Fast Fashion Facts You Need to Know
They help us save resources
More than 60% of new plastic production is used to create synthetic textiles. If we use PET that already exists – like little bottles floating in the ocean – we’ll be able to decrease plastic production and pollution in the long run, and end the dependence of the fashion industry on fossil fuels.
Also, plastic production is pretty energy-intensive, and making clothes from rPET consumes 70% less energy than making them from new plastic.
They act as an incentive for recycling facilities to be more productive and innovative
Recycling facilities are businesses and, just like any other business, they need a market where they can sell their products.
Then, the more clothing brands start introducing rPET into their catalogs, the more profitable it will be for recycling facilities to produce it.
Now, there’s a problem with this. If this bizz does become highly profitable, we might have to deal with shady businessmen saying that there’s no need to stop producing single-use plastics, given that they can be recycled. Basically, the same argument we already have with carbon offsets – wE cAN kEEp PoLlutiNg BeCauSe wE CaN oFfsEt OuR eMisSioNs.
But anything single-use is unsustainable (with the exception of medical supplies and other essential products, don’t get me wrong), and we should promote innovation in the field of recycling, but also look at the bigger picture of a circular system.
Where can I find clothes made of recycled plastic?
There are lots of brands offering clothing and accessories made out of recycled PET, but I want to show you 3 very different companies that are using it in different ways and for very different products.
This shows that really no matter the size of a company, the price of its products, or the market space they cover, doing some good is possible for everyone. And by showing you this I’m not endorsing any of them. All we’ve said about greenwashing still stands.
They’ve produced millions of shoes using recycled plastic, and they have also pledged to use only recycled plastic by 2024. Their Parley shoes are made of plastic recovered from the ocean – exactly 11 bottles are saved with each pair.
In 2017, they sold 1 million pairs, in 2018, 5 million, and they have produced 11 million for 2019.
I have followed on Instagram this fitness girl called Grace for ages, and in 2019 she started her own brand that uses exclusively recycled cotton and rPET. Even their labels and bags are 100% recycled and recyclable.
It’s a relatively young brand, but she’s killing it.
View this post on Instagram
If you’re rolling your eyes right now, I’m proud of you.
Because even if they use recycled plastic, they are still a fast fashion brand and a mass-producer, and, as we discussed in this post about greenwashing red flags, those things are not compatible with sustainability.
Yeah, they’re doing something, which is better than nothing, but (and this is a very big but) they’re not even close to being fully transparent, their ethics are the worst and just a tiny part of their collection is responsible.
So I will leave the moral dilemma for you to solve: is this good or nah?
View this post on Instagram
So now that you know everything about this topic, you decide:
- Do you consider clothes made of recycled plastic sustainable? Even regarding the microplastic issue?
- Is it really worth it for companies to put in the extra money to make their clothes of recycled plastic?
- How much of this whole thing is marketing and how much is really eco-consciousness?
- What does the future of clothing look like if we keep going in this direction?
Personally, I really appreciate the efforts being made to reduce the ✨trash✨ in the world. And yes, we have to get a lot better at recycling, and we need to find better technologies to make it more efficient.
I worry about plastic pollution, so I’ll always prefer natural fabrics to synthetic ones, even when they’re recycled. And I don’t think this is the one shift that will make the fashion industry 100% sustainable, but I believe it’s a nice push if we know how to take advantage of it.
And it’s true that until we find other textiles that can completely substitute synthetic fabrics, we’ll keep using them for some of our clothes. So why not use its recycled version?