You might have noticed something popping up in the sustainable or eco-friendly fashion world: clothing made from recycled PET bottles.
This actually isn’t new. Patagonia has been recycling bottles into its fleece since the early 90s. What is new is that the range of textiles we can make from recycled bottles has expanded. There are colorful printed yoga pants, technical cold-weather gear, and even blended textiles like denim.
Some of my sustainable friends have questioned how truly eco-friendly anything made with plastic can be. And there is merit in our collective striving toward a plastic-free wardrobe. After all, plastic is made from petroleum, so it’s better to go for a 100% organic cotton garment instead of one made with plastic, recycled or not. Also, the problem of polyester microfibers in the oceans is a scary one.
But the fact is, polyester – which is what recycled bottle yarn is – has become indispensable to the modern wardrobes. It’s how you get stretch. For example, Pact underwear creates its super-soft undies with organic cotton and 5% elastane, a polyester-polyurethane copolymer. You would also have to forgo athliesure as an entire category, or any performance gear at all. Have fun snowboarding that mountain in a wool fisherman’s sweater or heavy shearling coat. You could probably get away with wearing nothing but vintage jeans (let’s hope they never go out of style), but you would also have to get used to some pretty gnarly vintage bras as well, if you can’t do stretch. Basically, you would have to dress like they did in the 1920s.
Also, for those vegans out there, when fashion brands commit to going animal product-free, they’re in essence committing to synthetics. Because the only replacements for real fur, wool, silk, and leather are synthetic or semi-synthetic options.
So, wannabe natural fiber purists, I wish you the best of luck. For the rest of us, polyester made from recycled bottles is an elegant solution. And if you were to commit to only buying textiles made with recycled polyester, that actually might make a difference. It costs a tiny bit more for the companies that use it, but your choosing recycled polyester sends a signal to companies to keep sourcing more of it, which creates a market for recycled plastic bottles, which makes it cost effective for cities to implement recycling programs and even funds programs that pull plastic right out of the ocean.
As for disposal, it’s actually best to buy pure polyester garments instead of mixed ones, because as of right now, it’s possible to recycle pure polyester (just bring your 100% polyester garments back to Patagonia) while blended fibers are either trashed or downcycled.
So, the hierarchy of fashion shopping goes roughly like this:
1. 100% organic, natural fibers.
2. 100% natural fibers.
3. 100% recycled polyester.
4. Blended organic and recycled polyester.
5. 100% polyester.
5. Conventional blended.
Want some examples of clothing made with recycled bottles? There are more and more companies both large and small sourcing recycled polyester and nylon. This is just a sampling:
Ecoalf has a program to collect plastic that fisherman have pulled out of the ocean, and recycle it into stylish bags, apparel, and shoes.
Timberland incorporates recycled polyester into many of its sneakers, and even boots.
Stella McCartney for Adidas does stylish workout wear in recycled polyester.
Pinqponq makes its lightweight backpacks and other bags out of recycled polyester.
H&M incorporates recycled polyester into many of its styles.
You also find recycled PET bottles in many of these eco-friendly suitcases.