Published: June 07, 2019 Updated: March 27, 2023 8 min read
From a young age, we are trained to think of recycling as a never-ending process, throw something old that you no longer need or want into the system and something new pops out. But, that's a lie. What really happens is that when we put something old into the system, something of lesser quality comes out. And every time we re-recycle, and re-re-recycle the quality of the product that is coming out becomes lower and lower. The term for this is down-cycling. And the process continues until eventually, it can not recycle anymore, and it needs to end up in a landfill. Eventually, everything ends up in a landfill. Recycled Polyester and some other recycled fibers are an example of this. So, I am going to explain why brands that market recycled polyester fabric as the solution to fast fashion are extremely misguided.
Fabric recycling is not a solution to our culture of overconsumption. It is more like a delay in the system. It allows us to get a few more uses out of something before ultimately it ends up in the forbidden L word, landfill.
The idea of recycled fibers being the solution to fast fashions environmental problems is especially dangerous. It allows shoppers to believe that we can continue participating in fast fashion, without any consequences. This form of corporate greenwashing makes us feel good about the things we buy, but in reality, our purchasing dollars are not making the change we think they are. And, we are still part of the problem.
1993. That is when recycled polyester was first invented. It only became mainstream in the United States in about 2017! If took fashion over 24 years to start using it!
That is aside from Patagonia. Patagonia has been using recycled poly in their clothing since the fibers inception.
It took brands a while to jump on board because at first, the technology wasn't very precise. Yarn size was not consistent, and because different colors of water bottles entered the recycling system different colors of yarns would come out. And, this made knitting, weaving, and dying the textiles very difficult.
But, over the past 25+ years, technology has gotten better. Almost to the point where there is no distinction in quality between virgin and recycled. So, now, more businesses are ready to hop on the bandwagon and do the eco- friendly thing.
Downcycling is when a product is recycled, but made into something of lesser value. Upcycling is when something is recycled but, made into something of higher, or even equal value. An example of downcycling would be turning plastic pet bottles into fabric. An example of upcycling those plastic bottles would be to turn the water bottle waste into a reusable squirt bottle for watering plants or a vase like in the image below.
Do you see the difference? One takes something and makes it into a new lower quality product. The other takes something and makes it into something entirely new without any processing.
Recently down cycling has been rebranded as circularity. Circularity or cradle to cradle product means that a product can keep being recycled forever, or biodegrade in non-harmful way back into the environment. An example of circulatory that actually works in fashion would be biodynamic farming.
Downcycling is really just a slow spiral down to the landfill.
Once rPET bottles are recycled into rPET fabric they cannot be re-recycled into a fabric again. They are done. That is why PET fabric is not circular. It is not the future. It's only a delay to the landfill.
The bathing suit or yoga pants can either end up in a landfill, be shred and downcycled into something like carpet or pillow stuffing, and then the carpet and pillow stuffing is burned to create energy.
And, that is where the cycle ends. Re-recycling polyester carpet is impossible because the cost is too high. There is no product, currently, that can be made from it that would have a high enough price tag to offset the cost of recycling it - meaning that by recycling, companies would be losing money.
Some companies are looking at making carpet into polyol which can be used in foams. Currently, polyurethane foam options are not a great product, but, at least it will delay the trip to the landfill.
Yes and no. There are many disadvantages of recycled polyester yarns. If you are buying recycled poly, it's not as green as you may think. This is because, as I explained, most of these garments are destin for the landfill after you wear them.
And, the process is still far from perfect. Some news reports claim that recycled yarns take almost 30% more dye to achieve the same depth of shade as equivalent virgin polyesters. That's a lot of additional dye chemical resources!
But, sometimes poly is necessary for design. While organic cotton fabric swimsuits sound like a great sustainable idea. They would be a million pounds and stretch out as soon as they got wet. Would you want to go swimming in a cotton t-shirt? No.
So in these cases using a recycled pet fabric is a better option than virgin material. But just because recycled polyester fiber is better than virgin that should not give shoppers the green light to over-consume.
The problem is that swim doesn't last, and neither do workout clothes. They need to be replaced often. Sometimes every season.
The problem is that no matter how well you take care of it, swimwear will eventually fall apart. Chlorine, UV rays from sun exposure, and saltwater are the perfect trifecta to destroy a garment. No matter what you do, your swimwear will not last forever.
And workout wear will eventually get stinky because that is just the nature of polyester. It holds onto smells.
Now there is another option for swimwear that saves the ocean. And that is nylon. And, some types of nylon, like nylon 6 can actually be recycled infinitely.
Nylon 6 comes from one raw polymer material, caprolectum. Nylon-6 can be recycled by purifying the caprolactam, which is a process that takes out all of the dyes and colors. It is then re-polymerized into new fibres. And, this process can happen infinitely. As long as the Nylon 6 is pure. It cannot be blended with cotton, elastane, or any other fibers.
Nylon 6 should not be confused with Nylon 66. Nylon-66 is made from two polymers. Hexamethylenediamine and adipic acid. Because there are two polymers working together to make one fiber, it is harder to chemically recycle. It's so difficult to recycle it, that it's not economical. So garments made out of nylon 66 end up in the landfill, or again, rugs or insulation.
Poly is cheaper than nylon. There is no need for a long explanation here. It comes down to price. Brands are getting the same recycling, eco, we are saving the world "credit" whether they use poly or nylon, so most of them choose the cheaper option.
Maybe not. If the price of oil goes down then the price of virgin poly and nylon also goes down.
Recycled polyester price and recycled nylon price will remain about the same - this is because the cost of raw materials (old water bottles and ocean plastic) remains the same. The only way recycled fabrics will ever be cheaper than virgin is if the price of oil skyrockets.
Currently, the price is actually pretty close. So, greenwashing alert, brands taking a large premium for having recycled fabrics are technically ripping you off.
Speaking of greenwashing...
Alot of swimwear and yoga brands market their product as 100% recycled. BUT, Swimwear and yoga wear needs elastic.
This means that garment is never really 100% recycled. Because no company is making swim fabric with recycled elastic yarn. That's right, the stretch comes from virgin fibers.
We might be close though…
The company AsahiKasei is making Roica. Roica is elastane (read stretch fibers, aka spandex) that uses post-consumer recycled materials.
In theory, combining the Roica with recycled poly or nylon fabric would create the first ever 100% post waste swim fabric.
WHAT A GREAT ADVANCEMENT!! We need to always contiue to push the boundries and keep improving.
BUT, there is no fabric currently on the market which combines the recycled poly and nylon yarns and Roica recycled or biodegradable elastane.
Maybe if as consumers we all demand this fabric, it will become a reality.
One last issue with recycled PET...
Now that we have gone through all of the different recycled polyester fabric options for swimsuits. We need to talk about that little, literally microscopic, problem of microfibers. I bring it up because it is a reminder that we can always be pushing to do better and create new solutions.
I think this video from the story of stuff does a better job at explaining microfibres than I ever could. So, I'll just leave this right here.
Let's look back at recycled poly and nylon. It was invented over 25 years ago. And startups are just learning that it exists now and marketing it to you, the consumer, as something new!
At least once a week I get a message in my inbox from some startup. Along the lines of some brand that is solving the planets ocean plastic problem through swimwear or yoga pants. Delete.
To date, there are 21 brands on Kickstarter, that are starting an "innovative" recycled swimwear line. All while, big brands like ADIDAS, Nike, and others are already using the fabric. EVERYONE is using recycled fibers at this point. Even Zara.
AND THAT'S A GOOD THING! We want these more sustainable options to become the mainstream and not small niche markets.
Misinformation and clever marketing encourages us to consume more. Don't be fooled.
Brands see an opportunity to market something, something that most people have never heard of. And they prey on your lack of knowledge as a consumer.
They manipulate information to get you to buy more and to buy from them. None of these swimwear brands using recycled fabrics ever mention that their fabrics ends up in the landfill when you are done wearing it. They conveniently leave that part out. Encouraging you to buy more.
We need to remember that the solution to fast fashion and the worlds environmental problems will never be buying more stuff - no matter how eco-friendly the product is.
And, IMO when it comes to sustainability you should do yourself a favor and stick to buying from authentic and established brands like Patagonia. I view these brands who put in the time to research and were doing earth-friendly things before they were cool as the real trailblazers in the industry.
Let me hear your comments!?
I have spent over a decade living and working in fashion factories, seeing firsthand how clothing is made.
And now, I want to share with you everything I know. To help you navigate supply chains, and launch your own conscious clothing brand.
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