It's Plastic-Free July, and we're thinking about what we wear. Two-thirds of our clothing contains a synthetic fiber that is the bane of environmentalists, and yet the fashion industry promotes it as being sustainable. Apparel companies like J. Crew and Old Navy even attach labels that proudly state, “This item is made from recycled plastic bottles!” Considering discarded single-use plastic water bottles are one of the worst offenders to the planet, should we embrace clothing made from recycled water bottles?
Maxine Bédat, the executive director of the New Standard Institute, a non-profit that advocates for sustainable fashion, cautions, “We’ve been led to believe that recycled and sustainable are synonymous when they are anything but. Brands are focusing on what magical material they can create, rather than doing the less sexy work of improving energy efficiency in textile mills.”
What’s lurking in your wardrobe?
According to the Institute for Energy and Resource Management, in 2014, people bought 60% more clothing than in 2000 but kept it for half as long. Clothes made from bottles aren’t usually recycled again into new clothes but go directly to landfill after just a few wearings, especially low-quality “fast fashion” garments. The demand for recycled synthetics is expected to accelerate. About two-thirds of all clothing is now made from elastane, nylon, and acrylic, and by the year 2030, this number will increase to three-quarters. The most common synthetic is polyester, which makes up 52% of all fiber production. The fashion industry loves polyester for its versatility and durability, and more and more companies are substituting virgin synthetics with recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate), the most common type of plastic used in plastic water bottles. H&M, Madewell, J. Crew, and Gap Inc. (which includes Gap, Banana Republic, Athleta, and Old Navy) are even taking part in a challenge to increase their use of recycled PET to 45% by 2025. According to Nike’s vice-president of sustainable innovation, Nike is the highest industry user of recycled poly and diverts more than one billion plastic bottles a year from landfill and turns it into highly sought after apparel. Estimates show that using recycled polyester could reduce emissions by 32% per year, so isn’t that a good thing?
Closed-loop recycling vs. open loop recycling
Unfortunately, converting plastic bottles into clothing and other products isn’t as benign as we would like to think. To understand why, let’s review closed-loop (or circular) recycling and open loop (or linear) recycling.
In closed loop recycling, materials such as plastic, aluminum, and glass are recycled over and over again, without being landfilled, littered or “downcycled” into lower quality materials. This is more earth-friendly as high-quality materials can remain in circulation, and no new raw materials need to enter the loop. Unfortunately, not many things can be recycled this way.
In contrast, open loop recycling is when useful materials can be extracted from a product and used to create an entirely different product, like making fleece fabric for jackets out of recycled plastic bottles. The fleece jacket cannot be recycled again and will eventually “leave the loop.” This is also an example of downcycling, which occurs when material is remade into an item of lower quality that cuts the overall life cycle short. After that park bench or fleece jacket made from plastic bottles outlives its usefulness, it will not be recycled into another bench or jacket. Its next and final stop is to landfill or the incinerator.
Complications of the cloth
Most clothing is an interwoven medley of fibers that include cotton, wool, silk, and polyester, and we don’t have the technology to disentangle them so they can be recycled into other cotton, wool, silk, or polyester clothing. Synthetic clothing, whether it’s on its own or mixed with other textiles, is a big part of the problem because the fabric’s micro plastics are shed into the water system when laundered or shed into the air when worn. This doesn’t even include the climate footprint of raw materials taken from fossil fuels during production. Let’s remember that billions of tiny plastic particles can never be consolidated and removed from the environment; they just get smaller and smaller. Fibers from recycled plastic yarns continue to shed just as much as they do from virgin yarns.
Are there solutions?
A materials science company in Brooklyn, New York, called Kintra Fibers has developed bio-based fibers made from corn and wheat that are designed to compost fully in nature. The apparel brand Pangaia is launching a line of clothing made with Kintra fibers this year.
Companies like Amazon need to stop putting the burden of recycling onto consumers and step up to the plate by offering alternatives to single-use plastics like refillable and reusable containers. We can support government policies that limit or eliminate single-use plastics.
When companies tout clothes made from plastic bottles as being a more sustainable choice, they are basically "greenwashing," a marketing ploy that makes a product sound eco-friendly even when it isn’t. Plastic bottle clothing may be temporarily beneficial because it keeps plastic out of landfill for a few years during the life of the garment, but it’s ultimate destination to landfill is inevitable -- and usually sooner rather than later.
Although making clothes out of plastic bottles is relatively better than not recycling at all, the issue is best expressed by Oceana thusly: “Recycling can never prevent end-of-life disposal; it can merely delay it. This leads us to an obvious but surprisingly underappreciated conclusion: the only way to reduce the mount of material we landfill or incinerate is to reduce the amount we produce in the first place.” The real long-term solution is moving away from a model of excessive production and changing our own behavior as excessive consumers. Using fewer single-use plastic bottles to begin with probably wouldn’t hurt either.
Look for future articles on the sustainability of "natural fiber" clothing as well as alternatives to oil-based plastics for wet weather items such as ski wear, raincoats, umbrellas, and awnings.
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