Recycled Plastic Clothing: Friend or Foe?

Sustainability is becoming more and more important for consumers, and we're seeing many new innovations being created to help reduce the environmental impact of various industries. One such area of change can be seen in the fashion industry with the introduction of recycled plastic clothing, but is it an exciting solution or possible greenwashing?

What are our clothes made from?

Our clothing is generally made from one of two types of fibres (or a combination of the two). Those fibres are either natural coming from plant or animal origins; think linen, hemp, silk and wool or they're synthetic (also known as 'man-made' fibres). These have been created from chemically processing oil to make polyester, nylon and acrylic fabrics.

Both natural and synthetic fibres can be resource intensive in their production and with the growth of the fast fashion industry the demand on those resources has significantly increased. 70 years ago the textile and clothing industries used 2 million tons of synthetic materials, by 2010 that figure had increased to almost 50 million tons! Demand has increased dramatically, but our resources remain finite and the extraction and production of all these materials for clothing has a significant effect on our environment. This is especially true when it comes to the production of synthetic materials, in a year the demand for synthetic materials requires 342 million barrels of oil! Synthetic materials don't biodegrade and they rely on intensive resource processes and fossil fuel extraction for their production. In terms of energy usage and carbon emissions a 2017 study conducted by the Stockholm Environment Institute showed that the production of polyester far outweighed the energy usage and carbon emissions required to produce natural fibres like hemp and even cotton (which is known for its high-water usage).

Keeping plastics out of landfill, transforming them into clothing!

This is where the innovation of recycled plastic fabrics comes in. Recycled plastic clothing utilises resources already a part of the waste stream, recycling industrial plastic waste, fabric, plastic bottles and fishing nets, keeping those materials out of oceans and landfill. Recycled polyester or rPET is one such fabric made from these recycled materials offering a better option for 'virgin' polyester which is the worlds' major human-made fibre for textiles. The benefits of recycled polyester are that it can be made to the same initial quality as virgin polyester reducing the energy usage it takes to create it by 59 percent. This is also beneficial because it provides a recycled option for clothing reliant on the lightweight, stretch, or waterproof properties synthetic fibres provide (outdoor gear and activewear) and has also been used as a material for shoes.

Sounds great right? But before you go and buy lots of clothing made from recycled plastics, there are some downsides to this fabric. As plastic breaks down over time it is progressively recycled into lower and lower quality products and only high-quality plastics can be recycled into plastic clothing. This means that while a better alternative to virgin polyester, recycled plastic clothing isn't a long-term solution to plastic pollution.

This decrease in plastic quality also extends to the recycled fabric itself, there are only so many times the fabric can be recycled before its quality degrades and is then needed to be improved by adding virgin polyester to it. These problems make it difficult for recycled polyester to become a closed looped system, this could change as innovations improve but without infrastructure to continue to properly recycle it, at the end of their life these products could once again end up in landfill.

Fishing nets to swimwear

ECONYL created by Italian brand Aquafil is another popular fibre used in eco swimwear brands. It has been created from recycled materials and is used as an alternative to virgin nylon. Generally, nylon is more difficult to recycle because it requires ahigh volume of the same type of nylon fibre (there are a few different types) in order to work. By recycling a specific nylon fibre found in materials like fishing nets Aquafil has been able to do this. Unlike recycled polyester ECONYL can be recycled without any loss to the quality of the fibre meaning it can be regenerated infinitely and it also requires 60 percent less energy to produce! Overall ECONYL can provide a much more energy efficient form of nylon whilst utilising plastics already a part of the waste stream. While the benefits of this fibre are even higher than those shown by recycled polyester, both unfortunately still contribute to a much larger problem: plastic microfibres.

Plastic microfibres are the biggest source of plastic pollution in our oceans

Remember what I said earlier about synthetic fibres not being able to biodegrade? Well this is where the effects of that can be seen. Microfibres are the small tiny fibres that break off our clothing through wear and through washing. Defined as being thinner than a human hair and less than 5mm long these fibres are contributing to global microplastics, the single biggest pollutant of our oceans, accounting for 85% of plastic pollution on the world's shores. They also pose a potential harm to human health, with fish mistaking the plastics for food these plastics enter and work their way up the food chain, one study shows that the average person eats at least 50,000 particles of microplastic a year! The long-term health effects of microplastics (which microfibres are a part of) still needs more research, but there have already been links to negative health effects in regard to plastic exposure and human consumption. As consumers we can do a few things to help stop microfibre pollution, including using products like a guppy friend bag, washing our clothes less (try air them in the sun or spot clean before washing) and washing full loads in cold water.

So, are my tights made from recycled plastic water bottles just greenwashing or a good alternative?

Is recycled plastic clothing friend or foe? The answer is, it's a little of both. Recycled fabrics are more energy efficient than virgin synthetic fibres but may still be more energy intensive than the production of natural fibres. It's important to mention here that it doesn't take into account water usage which is very high for the production of cotton but low in terms of synthetic materials. So buying natural fibres that can biodegrade and are more energy efficient is a better first option, for those concerned about the water usage of cotton look for other alternatives like linen or GOTS (global organic textile standard) certified organic cotton which requires less water and pesticide use (also check for ethical supply chains here to). For those times when we do need to purchase a more synthetic material recycled is better than virgin fibres, ECONYL especially is a better choice as it uses less energy to produce and can be continuously recycled.

Written by Aidan Rushworth

Aidan is an Australian Communications graduate and yoga teacher. With a love for the environment and travel she is often trying to find ways to explore and tread as lightly on the planet as she can.

Header image: Photo by Tamara Bellis on Unsplash

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