– I love your leggings!
–Thanks, they used to be water bottles.
Maybe this sounds like something weird to say, but it would be absolutely true.
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. Only thing is that this second statement might not be completely accurate.
At the beginning, I was happy to see fashion brands taking a stand against plastic pollution but the more you think about it the less ideal it becomes.
On the one hand, companies making clothes out of recycled plastic are great because they help give 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 the same issues as clothes made of virgin plastic (i.e. creation of microplastics and quasi impossible recycling).
Falling for greenwashing is really easy nowadays and one of the most exploited expressions there is among wanna-be sustainable businesses is “made of n% recycled plastic” – keep reading to know why this is actually quite problematic.
What’s the deal with synthetic clothes?
Up to 60% of the clothes in our closets are made of synthetic fibres – you know, acrylic, nylon, polyester,… And, believe it or not, not everyone realizes that synthetic clothes are essentially plastic and that they can have a negative impact on the environment.
At the end of the day we’re talking about clothes. How bad can they be?
As I was doing research for this post, I found someone asking on a forum the most metaphysical question I’ve ever read: “is there fabric in our clothes?” And wow, this guy is asking the real question.
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 👇
How do they make clothes out of plastic bottles?
Recycled PET (from now on, rPET) is the plastic they use to make these clothes. In layman’s terms, it’s the plastic we use to make plastic bottles and the one that has the number 1 inside the little triangle thingy.
The process to turn bottles into fabric seems pretty straightforward:
- Collecting water bottles
- Cleaning them
- Grinding them into little chips
- Melting the chips
- Spinning them into a fine yarn – usually polyester
And then we give them a second life sewing them into your new sneakers or leggings.
It sounds like the ecologist fashion dream: we divert plastic from landfills and get new clothes in exchange.
But, life isn’t simple and neither is this topic. So let’s 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 present, like the fact that when we wash them they shed microplastics into our water streams and 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.
Using recycled plastic is a very easy way to greenwash consumers
Have you heard about greenwashing? It’s a truly fascinating 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 the reality is not that simple.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t celebrate sustainable materials and techniques becoming making their way into mainstream fashion, but we should always be careful when it comes to big corporations, 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 is that plastic post-consumer plastic? Will it be possible to recycle that piece of clothing once you want to dispose of it or will the recycled-virgin plastic blend make it impossible?
Plastic can only be recycled a couple of times
With our current technology (physical recycling), we can only recycle plastic a couple of times because this process makes the plastic fibers shorter and shorter to the point that they can’t form strong fabrics 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 them when they’re unusable?
Again, good news: a chemical plastic recycling method is becoming more and more popular, which could make plastics infinitely recyclable.
Using recycled plastic is more expensive than using virgin plastic
Everlane, for example, spends 10 to 15 % more 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 there are just a few garment factories working with recycled plastic fabrics.
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 prices would go down.
Pros of clothes made of recycled plastic
They divert plastic from the landfills
Instead of letting a plastic bottle rot on a landfill, we’re turning it into something we need and are willing to use.
Looking for more ways to reduce your waste? Check this post on how to reduce your waste on a budget.
They help us save resources
More than 60% of virgin PET production is used to create synthetic textiles. If we use PET that already exists – discarded bottles – we’ll be able to produce way less plastic overall, which means there will be less plastic pollution in the long term.
Also, producing virgin plastic is pretty energy-intensive and recycling plastic requires between 33% and 53% less energy.
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 on their catalogs, the more profitable it will be for recycling facilities to produce it.
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.
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 oceans – exactly 11 bottles are saved from the ocean with each pair.
In 2017, they sold a million pairs, in 2018, 5 million, and they have produced 11 million for 2019.
Well played, Adidas.
I have followed this girl called Grace on Instagram for ages because of her awesome positive energy. And in 2019 started her own sportswear brand that uses exclusively recycled cotton and rPET. Even their labels and bags are 100% recycled and recyclable.
Ah, we love a sustainability queen.
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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 supposed to be sustainable.
So I will leave the moral dilemma for you to solve: is this good or nah?
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So now that you know everything about this topic, it is up for you to decide:
- Do you consider clothes made of recycled plastic sustainable? Even regarding the microplastic issue?
- Is it really worth it for companies to make these products, or should they invest in other sustainable products and research to find them?
- 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 better at recycling, and we need to find better technologies to make recycling more efficient.
One of my main worries is plastic pollution, so I’ll always prefer natural fabrics to synthetic ones, even recycled ones. And I don’t think this is the one shift that will make the fashion industry sustainable once and for all. But I believe it’s a nice incentive if we know how to take advantage of it.
Until we find other technologies or fabrics that can completely substitute synthetic fabrics, we’ll keep using them for some of our clothes. So why not using its recycled version?