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How sustainable is fashion made from recycled plastic?

The growing consumer demand in sustainability has led to a lot of retail companies stepping up their ethical game. One way retailers are doing this is using recycled Polyester (rPET), made from post-consumer waste, such as plastic bottles or fishing nets.

In 2017, the non-profit organization Textile Exchange challenged over 50 textile, apparel and retail companies (including giants like Adidas, H&M, Gap and Ikea) to increase their use of recycled polyester by 25 percent by 2020. They actually hit over target at 36% by the end of 2020. 

Whilst it is hugely encouraging to see retailers improving their sustainability efforts, recycling plastic into polyester isn’t as sustainable as you may think. Here are some things to consider when you see ‘made from recycled polyester’ on the tag.

1 > Micro-plastics still shed from garments

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (A New Textile's Economy) half a million tons of micro-plastics from plastic garments end up in the seas every year. 

When you wash recycled polyester, micro-plastics will still be released into the ocean, causing harm to marine life and contaminating waterways.

2 > It doesn’t promote a circular economy

Recycling a plastic bottle into another plastic product, it can be recycled endlessly. However, when you recycle a plastic bottle into a fabric and then a garment, it interrupts the continuous cycle of a circular economy.

Because there is no large-scale recycling technology for post-consumer textiles, the worn garment is likely to end up in landfills. 

3 > We don't want to rely on plastic long-term

Recycled polyester can contribute to reducing the extraction of crude oil and natural gas from the Earth to make more plastic. “Using recycled polyester lessens our dependence on petroleum as a source of raw materials,” says the website of outdoor brand Patagonia. 

However, if the demand for recycled polyester grows, then the demand for plastic bottles increases. Meaning one thing can’t be produced without the other. Whilst, it’s good to use resources that we currently have, in the long-term we can’t be reliant on manufacturing garments from plastic bottles, because that will encourage more plastic production.

4 > Recycling Polyester weakens the fibre

Most rPET is processed by mechanical recycling, which requires no chemicals other than detergents to clean the input materials. However, “through this process, the fibre can lose its strength and thus needs to be mixed with virgin fibre,” notes the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment.

When recycled polyester is mixed with a virgin fibre, it makes it even harder, maybe even impossible to recycle the garment after use. 

5 > The process of recycling PET harms the environment

PET production requires 59 percent less energy compared to virgin polyester, according to a 2017 study by the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment. 

However, Patty Grossman, co-founder of Two Sisters Ecotextiles, raises the issue that mechanical recycling can cause polyester chips to vary in colour. Therefore, the suppliers want to dye it using chlorine-based bleaches. However, Grossman explains that the “Inconsistency of dye uptake makes it hard to get good batch-to-batch colour consistency and this can lead to high levels of re-dyeing, which requires high water, energy and chemical use.”

Things everyone can do differently:

> Before you buy, see if recycled polyester is mixed with any other fibre

> Ask brands about the environmental cost of recycling polyester (every brand will process and manufacture differently)

> Buy a guppyfriend bag to catch the micro-plastics in the wash

> Ask brands whether this a long-term solution for sustainability

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