Posted by George Wimmer | Environment

How plastic bottles are being used to make clothing

Adidas makes shoes with recycled ocean plastics. Pharrell Williams has launched a clothing collection with recycled ocean plastics and surfer legend; Kelly Slater has a line of clothing made 100% from reclaimed fishing nets. These, along with hundreds of big and small name brands, have been producing clothing with recycled plastics.

Much of our apparel is currently made from synthetic fibers, so this is not too much of a stretch to incorporate recycled materials. It uses recycled material like plastic bottles as the source versus making synthetic fibers from petroleum.

So let’s walk through the process.

First, recycle a bunch of plastic bottles. Those bottles are then shredded so all the remaining liquids can drain out. Clear containers are separated from the color bottles. Clear bottles are more valuable because they can make white fabric or be dyed any other color. We won’t go in-depth here, but artificial dyes are a whole other area of bad stuff.

Caps and labels need to go, so it is run through a bath – the lighter caps float to the top and are skimmed off. Then a caustic soda mix is used to strip any labels. Yeah, caustic soda is another troubling part of the process.

The plastic is ready to be melted then forced through a sieve and starts to look like a threaded material. This thread is ripped apart to create what looks like cotton wool fluff. That material is put through another machine to make all the fibers go the right direction the turned into a cloth-like thread that creates a large sheet of polyester material.

Plastic bottles being turned into clothing

So the process is more about the type of material used on the original input – recycled bottles versus petroleum.

Now companies like Adidas or Patagonia plus hundreds of other businesses make their clothing and sell it. It is an excellent use of otherwise single-use plastics. The cost is 10% to 15% more to use recycled material.

The company that created Repreve, which makes fabric from recycled bottles, estimates it has used over 14 billion plastic bottles in the few years it has existed. A good start by this one company and many other companies are doing the same. So how does this stack up against the number of plastic bottles in use? Well, the United States alone uses 38 billion plastic bottles each year. Every year, 8 million metric tons of plastics enter our ocean on top of the estimated 150 million metric tons already in the sea.

By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans, extensive use of plastic has increased 20-fold in the past 50 years, and is expected to double again in the next 20 years. Reusing plastics is a critical piece to solve this pollution problem over the next decade as we work on better solutions such as bio-plastics. It is a substantial environmental positive to get these single-use plastics reused and replace the use of new petroleum in the supply line.

plastic bottles on the beach

What is becoming clear to everyone is that the most significant issue we face is the microplastics that are shed by all types of plastics. These microplastics that separate from clothing or bottles or anything made of plastics are still a big issue with recycled plastics. In clothing, a potential solution is fitting washers n dryers with screens that can collect these microplastics before they enter the environment. I also thought of having such screens at wastewater plants. My experience in local government tells me this might be the best and most effective place to start.

Cost – the cost stated in several sources places it at 10% to 15% more to use recycled plastics. A recent shirt purchase I made of a Kastlfel shirt was 40% more than a similar shirt. I want to support recycling technologies, so I bought it, but the out of pocket cost is considerably higher. The environmental gain, however, small for one purchase, is still essential and, when added to thousands more, becomes life-altering.