Recycled plastic has now become trendy. More and More fashion brands, especially in the direct-to-consumer arena, have been creating products manufactured from plastic wastes in recent times. Converting plastic bottles into clothes is a not a new concept. Several spinning mills and businesses have attempted to popularise this since the 1990s. However, recycled Polyester is just now gaining popularity as a sustainable substitute to polyester. 99% of recycled polyester comes from PET bottles.

So far, 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic have been manufactured since it was first produced in the year 1907. Waste accounted for 6.3 billion metric tonnes of this. Merely 9% of this plastic was recycled, and the remaining 12% was burnt, releasing carbon and hazardous compounds into the environment. The rest has ended up in oceans and landfills, where this will remain for centuries due to the inability of plastic to disintegrate.

Polyester, which is normally sourced from petroleum-based materials, makes up over 65 percent of the fibers used in the textile and garment industries, therefore using rPET as a sustainable alternative immediately reduces pressure on finite resources. Hence, making rPET is also less harmful. According to a 2017 life-cycle analysis, producing rPET emits 79 percent fewer carbon footprint than generating virgin PET.

The concept of dissolving discarded plastic bottles and turning them into fabrics was still a new idea when Nike celebrated World Cup jerseys produced from recycled polyester in 2010.  Plastic bottles gathered from three American national parks were recently converted into a range of bags and t-shirts by more experienced players like The North Face, an outdoor company. Since 1993, Patagonia, an outdoor clothing company, has been recycling plastic into fleece jackets. Today, nearly every clothing company, from American Eagle to Zara, flaunts the material as proof of its “green” initiatives.

But nevertheless, a critical analysis of the situation reveals that recycling plastic trash into apparel is not just a poor strategy, but it still has a environmental impact, even if it is lesser than the traditional fashion industry.

The Changing Markets Foundation, in collaboration with the City to Sea plastic pollution campaign, claims that using recycled bottles for apparel is an ecologically “destructive” approach which also allows manufacturers to “greenwash” their products.

Recycling Plastic has some limitations. Here are some of the reasons why recycled polyester is not a sustainable solution for fashion waste crisis –

  • Once bottles are downcycled into clothes, this material cannot be recycled further without the quality of the fibres deteriorating significantly, becoming weaker and smaller and must instead be thrown away. Making garments from plastic bottles is a one-way route to incineration, landfill or being dumped in nature. One garbage truck of clothes per second ends up in landfill or environment. Utilizing plastic bottles for clothes does nothing to solve this issue.
  • Even if it appears like discarded bottles are being put to good use, this is not the case. They might, in fact, be part of a circular system that allows them to be transformed into new bottles. Plastic bottles can be gathered and refilled or recycled several times, reducing the amount of virgin plastic needed. To put it another way, instead of relying on the trash of another industry, bottles should be recycled into new bottles and garments should be recycled into new garments.
  • Other issues with plastic fashion, like microfibre pollution, are not resolved by recycled polyester. Despite the fact that millions of tiny plastic particles are shed from garments during production, wearing, and washing, which continue to pollute the ocean and our bodies through the food we eat and the air we breathe.
  • The method of recycling PET has an environmental impact as well. Another challenge with polyester recycling, according to Patty Grossman, co-founder of Two Sisters Ecotextiles, is that the chips produced by mechanical recycling may vary in colour: some are crisp white, and others are creamy yellow, making colour uniformity difficult to accomplish. “Some dyers struggle to get a white, so they use chlorine-based bleaches to whiten the base,” she says. “Dye absorption inconsistency makes it difficult to achieve good batch-to-batch colour consistency, which can lead to a lot of re-dying, which consumes a lot of water, energy, and chemicals.”
  • When compared to the fashion industry’s massive reliance on virgin synthetics, brands’ usage of recycled synthetics is a drop in the bucket. The production of these fibres, which are generated from oil and gas, has expanded enormously over the past 20 years and shows no signs of slowing down. The utilization of recycled synthetics ‘diverts’ customers from the more serious issue of the dependency of fashion brands’ on fossil fuels.
  • Making clothing out of plastic bottles is simply another greenwashing strategy by brands to persuade customers to buy more clothing in the mistaken idea that they are more sustainable. It’s high time to put an end to the greenwashing.

Undoubtedly, the apparel industry’s use of recycled materials and rPET rather than new, virgin Pet is a good thing. Clothing brands, on the other hand, believe that rPET is the answer, ignoring the waste that they generate inadvertently: textile waste.

Turning recycled plastic into clothing may generate a lot of buzz, but we won’t be able to establish truly novel approaches for sustainability unless we address the bigger issue: the existing fashion business model (selling more and more). Some companies, like the Swedish Filippa K and Patagonia have been doing the same for quite a while now, not to forget smaller businesses that provide everything from lifetime warranties to reverse logistics and limitless recycling.

Brands may be exacerbating microfibre release by splintering bigger plastics into synthetic fibre that leaks more easily into the atmosphere by promoting bottle recycling into fibre. The industry will not get out of its comfort zone and the oceans will continue to be clogged with plastic, until we push forward and not settle for less. Recycled plastic clothing is not going to save the fashion industry or the environment. People and businesses who are willing and receptive to true change will.


By Somasree Roy