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Are Clothes Made from Recycled Plastic Really Sustainable???

March 2, 2021

I’m not going to kid, this blog post is as much for me as it is for you. My favorite leggings are from Girlfriend Collective and made from recycled water bottles and my warmest sweater is made from recycled plastic as well.

My main goal for this blog post: determine if buying/wearing clothing made from recycled plastic is a sustainable clothing practice. Factors to consider:

  • Microplastic Shedding
  • Does wearing recycled plastic expose us to harmful chemicals?
  • How is clothing made from recycled plastic disposed of?

Let’s talk about why clothing made out of recycled plastics sounds so good. Our planet is overrun with plastic. Plastic production began just over 60 years ago and the time since then 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced(1). That’s more than the weight of 1 billion elephants. Plastic takes 400+ years to decompose and so most of the materials that have been produced are still on the planet today (12% has been burned and that is a whole other can of worms) and only 9% has been recycled(1). Each year 380 million tons of plastic is produced (2) and half of all plastic becomes waste within 1 year of production (1). So yes, finding a way to sequester some of the billions of tons of plastic that exist and are still being produced, into clothing or really anything, seems like a great option.

Polyester and other plastic based fibers were first introduced to the American public in the 1950’s and advertised as wrinkle resistant(3). Throughout the 60’s and 70’s polyester was widely used to create the loud prints and thick fabrics suits that have given them a bad reputation over the years. Today’s polyester is much less loud and can be made into garments that are breathable and honestly quite lovely. But the reason that so many of us have polyester in our clothing is a little thing called stretch. I don’t know about you but during quarantine, and honestly even before, stretch clothing has become a major part of my life. Comfort has proven to be essential to my happiness and without polyester or spandex or lycra in clothing… there is no real stretch. Polyester is also used in active wear for it’s sweat wicking properties and in outerwear for its ability to repel water. And these properties have become pretty essential to our lives. I don’t know if I’d be a happy camper without a waterproof jacket and stretchy black leggings.

But is there a sustainable alternative to virgin plastic? Well, maybe there is. Recycled polyester may be the answer. While Bamboo and Tencel can have the same slippy, silky feel that plastic based fibers have they do not have the stretch that we’ve become so accustomed to. Several brands have started producing garments in the past few years that are made from recycled water bottles or recycled fishnets and are said to have the same (stretchy) properties as virgin polyester.

It’s hard to imagine that water bottles could be used to produce stretchy my favorite stretchy black leggings but… if you think about the way that polyesters are produced (by heating a chunk of plastic and stretching it into very thin fibers as it cools) it’s easy to see how that can be done with a similar chunk of plastic made from other (non-virgin) types of plastic.

From this point in writing, I am starting to feel pretty good about buying a garment made from recycled plastic. Especially when considering that nearly 70 billion barrels of oil are used to make polyester fiber each year and the more that we can stem that production, the better (4).



Microplastics

From this point in writing, I am starting to feel pretty good about buying a garment made from recycled plastic. Especially when considering that nearly 70 billion barrels of oil are used to make polyester fiber each year and the more that we can stem that production, the better (4).

Ok so since we can agree that recycled plastic fiber is *likely* better than virgin plastic fiber, let’s move on to the next major concern: shedding microplastics. This is actually huge and it’s an issue whether or not the plastic fibers that we are wearing are virgin or recycled. Are we inadvertently and unknowingly littering microplastics into our water systems when we wash our clothes? The short answer is yes.

Microplastics are released from our synthetic clothing when we wash them and they travel through wastewater systems to treatment facilities (where they are likely not filtered out because they are so small), into rivers, and then the ocean(5). Wow, that’s rough.

While clothing and textiles are not the only place that microplastics come from but they do account for about 35% of microplastics in the oceans(5). Because microplastics are so small (less than 5 millimeters) they are easily ingested by marine life where they can accumulate in the gut and alter/inhibit many normal body functions(5). This sounds (and is) horrible. So how do we cope?

The first step is dealing with the clothing that you already have. Wash less if you can, use a guppyfriend bag to catch released fibers, and install a microplastic filter on your washing machine if you have one at home. Secondly, we as consumers need to insist that brands use fabrics and practices that minimize microplastic shedding (yes this is possible). Thirdly, we can discuss the issue with our policy makers: locally the wastewater treatment plant may be able to upgrade their filtration system and globally we need to hold brands accountable and demand legislation to address the release of microplastics into the environment.



Plastic Leaching

Alright, we’ve got our guppy bag, our washing machine filter, we’ve written letters, and talked to local lawmakers, what’s next? Let’s talk about plastic leaching. In researching this blog post I’ve come across some concerns about plastic clothing leaching harmful chemicals into our bodies while we wear them and into our waterways when we wash them. So what was the verdict? Some very thorough scientists looked into the types of plastic that are generally used to produce recycled plastic clothing and found that that plastic mostly doesn’t have the harmful chemicals that would be leaching out of the plastic. Additionally these scientists found that the process of leaching (on the chance that some clothing had the types of plastic that leach) wouldn’t occur unless the garment were held consistently at a temperature far above the temperature in which a human can survive. Thus these scientists concluded that there is no evidence that suggests that wearing fabric made from recycled plastic will negatively affect your health compared to other fabrics (6).

Disposal

Finally, let’s think about the end of life for the recycled polyester garment (something we should think about for every garment the purchase, but I digress). No matter whether your garment is made of virgin polyester or recycled polyester it is not biodegradable. All fabrics that are made from natural materials (whether that’s a wool/silk blend or a cotton/Tencel blend) are biodegradable, but any fabric that has any synthetic fiber mixed in is not biodegradable. Additionally these blended natural/synthetic fabrics tend to not be recyclable either, they are either trashed or downcycled (made into something with less worth). However a 100% polyester garment *is* recyclable, whether it is made from virgin plastic or recycled plastic.

Thinking about the end of life for your garment can help you to make a decision about what you purchase. For example, I would generally choose conventionally grown (non-organic) 100% cotton garments over a cotton/polyester blend because I know that it won’t live on the planet for the next 400 years. Just reading the tag of a garment regardless of where it was made or by whom (though those factors are very important) can help you to make a conscious decision when you’re shopping or thinking of disposing of a garment.

In conclusion, recycled polyester isn’t a perfect solution to the problem of plastic in clothing but when steps are taken to avoid microplastic shedding… it’s a pretty good solution. And if we can get wastewater treatment facilities, washing machine manufacturers, and clothing brands on board to reduce microplastics entering the waterways we also might just be able to reduce the amount of virgin plastic fiber being made without sacrificing our oceans and environment.

References
  1. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/plastic-produced-recycling-waste-ocean-trash-debris-environment
  2. https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution#:~:text=The%20world%20now%20produces%20more,our%20natural%20environment%20and%20oceans.
  3. https://www.plasticsmakeitpossible.com/whats-new-cool/fashion/types-of-fabric/polyester-not-just-your-fathers-leisure-suit/
  4. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2015/12/03/making-climate-change-fashionable-the-garment-industry-takes-on-global-warming/?sh=2adb9c9c79e4
  5. https://www.fashionrevolution.org/our-clothes-shed-microfibres-heres-what-we-can-do/#:~:text=What%20are%20microfibres%3F&text=Microfibres%20are%20a%20type%20of,goes%20to%20sewage%20treatment%20facilities.
  6. https://ecocult.com/is-clothing-made-from-recycled-polyester-and-bottles-toxic/