- It requires less energy to make.
- The bottles it uses don’t go to landfills—or pollute the ocean.
- Making polyester from bottles instead of oil reduces the need for petroleum drilling.
I won’t try to list all the brands that sell clothing made of recycled polyester, but it seems worthwhile to examine some companies that make the yarn and fabric.
In case you wonder what happens to your recycling after it leaves the curb, the material recovery facility sells bottles to companies like these.
In recent years, some of these companies have taken on an even bigger environmental problem. They partner with people who take plastic out of the oceans. Or people in third-world companies who collect bottles so they won’t get into the ocean.
Unifi was founded in 1971 to make yarns from polyester, then a new material. The company persevered as the popularity of polyester rose and fell.
It is the oldest and largest of these companies, employing almost ten times as many people as the next largest. It does not devote its entire business to recycled polyester.
In 2007, Unifi introduced Repreve™, a polyester yarn made from recycled PET bottles. Although it can’t make nylon from bottles, Unifi makes Repreve nylon from “pre-consumer” waste.
The company has become a leader in sustainability as more and more fabric companies purchase Repreve yarns. And many well-known brands buy these fabrics and boast of using Repreve.
In June 2019, Unifi introduced Repreve Our Ocean. Instead of purchasing bales of bottles from recycling centers for this product, Unifi buys them from countries that have no recycling programs. It costs a little more for essentially the same product, but Unifi polled consumers and learned that many will willingly pay the extra to keep plastic out of the ocean.
Eight countries (China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia, and Egypt) account for the bulk of plastic that enters the oceans. Entrepreneurs in these countries will collect plastic waste if they can find buyers. So Unifi buys bottles collected within 30 miles of the coast.
Manufacturers use Repreve, whether polyester or nylon, to make clothing, automotive fabrics, curtains, carpets, upholstery fabric, tents, backpacks, and more.
Waste2Wear, founded in 1998, has its headquarters in Shanghai, China. Founder Monique Maissan, a Dutch textile engineer, became disillusioned with the bad environmental impact of the fabric industry.
The company makes fabric from recycled PET. I can’t tell if it makes its own yarn. It does, however, look at its entire supply chain. Like Unifi, Waste2Wear is working to reduce plastic pollution in our oceans. It partners with former fishermen to retrieve plastic from the ocean.
Numerous brands make a wide variety of clothing from Waste2Wear fabrics. Waste2Wear also offers shopping bags, school bags, and travel bags from used plastic bottles.
It has the oddest purpose statement I have ever seen: “We hope to run out of business one day because there will be no more bottles to recycle anymore.”
Perhaps someday someone will popularize a greener alternative to plastic bottles. Until then, Waste2Wear faces no threat from a lack of materials.
Spanish company Textil Santanderina recycles both plastic bottles, polyester fabric, and cotton. That is, it recycles used textiles as well as discarded bottles. Most of its bottles come from recycling operations.
It makes its Seaqual from a minimum of 5% plastic captured from the Mediterranean sea.
Fishermen catch plenty of plastic in their nets. Textil Santanderina collaborates with 165 Spanish fishing boats, which collect it for recycling.
The company gets additional plastic waste from NGOs that collect it from beaches and estuaries.
Ian Rosenberger started Thread International in 2010 after a visit to Haiti after the devastating earthquake. He wanted to find a way to turn Haiti’s trash into cash. His intent was not so much to protect oceans as to end poverty.
The company calls its process from Ground to Good™. Haitians collect bottles, whether from the streets, landfills, or their neighbors, and sell them at a plastic collection center. The center prepares and bundles them for transportation to a recycling center, also in Haiti.
Workers there remove labels and caps and grind the bottles into flake. Manufacturers in both the US and Thailand spin the flake into yarn, which other manufacturers weave or knit into fabric.
Thread International is still a startup undergoing a relaunch. It is currently making backpacks for people who supported it on Indiegogo and Kickstarter. Other prospective customers can put their names on a waiting list. The company promises its relaunch later this year.
One trouble with recycled polyester
Washing machines and wastewater treatment plants can’t filter them out. Microfibers of cotton or other natural fiber biodegrade, but not synthetic microfibers.
Microfibers may be the most dangerous plastic in the oceans. Recycled polyester is better for the environment than polyester from virgin petroleum, but it still sheds in the wash. Every load of laundry eventually sends plastic microfibers to the ocean.
Fleece sheds the most, and some of these companies don’t make recycled polyester fleece. Otherwise, Waste2Wear cites studies showing that recycled PET sheds 55% less microfiber than virgin PET.
Eventually, the clothing industry will simply have to move away from polyester entirely.
Worldwide, we need to wear only natural fibers. So far, we haven’t discovered a sustainable way to make enough.
Meanwhile, recycled plastic can be put to more eco-friendly uses, such as toys, furniture, decking, and other rigid objects. Or fabrics that don’t get washed frequently, such as car seats, curtains or coats.
At least two organizations, Biofabricate and Parley for the Oceans, are working to find materials both naturally derived and sustainable. And encourage the clothing industry to use them.
Until then, recycled polyester does much more good than harm. It has a smaller environmental footprint than either polyester from oil or cotton.
Recycling triangle with PET bottles. Source unknown
Polartec Repreve. Polartec
Plastic pollution. National Ocean Service Image Gallery via Flickr.
Washing machine. Image by KoalaParkLaundromat from Pixabay