This post was originally published in August 2019 and was republished with updates in May 2021. This post contains affiliate links.
Is Recycled Plastic Clothing Sustainable?
The “sustainable” fashion world is having a moment with recycled textiles, namely those made of plastic. Bonus points if it’s “ocean plastic.”
Especially this year, I’m seeing dozens of swimwear companies marketing their polyester suits as sustainable simply because they’re made with polyester from old water bottles.
Though most of the fishing nets and water bottles rescued from the earth’s waterways and landfills to be made into textiles are used in athletic wear, I’m starting to see “eco” polyester crop up in more unlikely places, like in t-shirts and denim. And of course, Rothy’s popularized shoes made from water bottles.
While I’m not an ethical purist, I’m still a bit confused by this trajectory. Because the fact is that most efforts to recycle plastic in this way are ignoring the long view.
The story of recycled plastic is simply more complicated…
The Issues with Recycled Polyester
There are a number of issues with using recycled plastic in clothing and accessories. Some of them are environmental concerns and others have to do with human health.
All polyester textiles shed micro-plastics, which are small particles of fiber.
And micro-fiber shedding doesn’t cease to be a problem just because the item is made with recycled polyester. According to Fashion United:
A paper published in 2011 in the journal Environmental Science Technology found that microfibers made up 85 percent of human-made debris on shorelines around the world. It doesn’t matter if garments are from virgin or recycled polyester, they both contribute to microplastics pollution.
When I worked with my university’s School of the Environment to do a life cycle assessment for school merchandise, we also found that microplastics aren’t just a problem for waterways.
In fact, micro-plastics can shed from garments at any time during use, not just when they’re washed. This means that plastic is actually everywhere, even if we use a guppyfriend when laundering. Whitney Bauck delves into this further in her recent piece.
Breaking down plastic into recycled polyester requires toxic processes and unsustainable uses of resources like water. The recycling process works by breaking down plastics into small chips, but these chips are often not consistent in color.
Producers, in order to create consistency in the base color before dyeing, may have to apply several rounds of bleach. Then, according to the same article:
“Inconsistency of dye uptake makes it hard to get good batch-to-batch color consistency and this can lead to high levels of re-dyeing, which requires high water, energy and chemical use.”
There’s also the fact that polyester – and plastic in general – is known to leech carcinogenic compounds as a result of the original production process (this is why you’re not supposed to drink out of water bottles that have been stored for more than a few months). Comparatively little research has been done on impacts for the recycled plastic market, but it’s safe to say that textiles and other goods made out of rPET (recycled polyester) carry the same risks.
Breakdown in the Circular Economy
Polyester in any form is not biodegradable. If we were able to create a circular economy in the world of plastics, reusing most if not all of it for new goods, this would definitely be a step in the right direction.
But an issue we found in our life cycle assessment is that, unlike plastic water bottles, polyester clothing is not typically recycled. So what ends up happening is that a water bottle is taken out of a circular recycling system and then turned into something that can’t be recycled again.
So recycled polyester is not really “sustainable” in the truest sense of the word. In fact, using it disrupts circularity!
Some specialty goods – especially technical gear that’s always made with polyester – will still benefit from recycled plastic. But it’s not a miracle product.
There are multiple marketing issues when it comes to recycled plastic. First, advocating for the production of goods made with recycled water bottles may justify the production of new plastics under the guise that it will be put to good use in clothing.
Second, it’s worth noting that there’s currently a recycling crisis in the U.S., with many cities canceling their recycling programs. This reduces the supply of recycled plastic bottles in the market, and means that there’s not always enough to go around.
So, it recycled plastic clothing sustainable?
No, not in the full sense of the word. This could change with better circularity efforts in textiles, or by pursuing alternative plastics that don’t have as much potential for circularity in their primary market (i.e. something other than water bottles).
The recycled polyester craze is directly reliant on the production of new plastics, has all the downsides of virgin polyester, and disrupts circularity.
But, if an item calls for polyester, then recycled can be a better option.
All that to say, while we shouldn’t feel guilty for having some plastic in our lives, we may want to reconsider putting all of our lobbying weight behind an eco-innovation that is in danger of becoming the end-all-be-all of what marketers mean when they use the term, “sustainable.”
- How Sustainable is Recycled Polyester?
- More than ever, our clothes are made of plastic. Just washing them can pollute the oceans.
- Hundreds of US cities are killing or scaling back their recycling programs
- Clothes Made of Recycled Water Bottles Are Everywhere—But Are They Sustainable?