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23rd April 2018, Manchester

Making textiles and clothing from recycled plastics

Clothes are an everyday necessity, and for many an important form of expression. However, as we are continuing to learn the extent of the effect human actions have on our environment, sustainability is becoming one of the major topics in the textiles and clothing industry.

According to a report from Dame Ellen MacArthur's foundation published in 2017, fashion production currently creates greenhouse emissions of 1.2 billion tonnes a year. It is estimated that more than half of fast fashion production is disposed of in under a year, and one garbage truck full of textiles is landfilled or burnt every second. This, combined with a very low rate of recycling, leads to an ever-expanding pressure on resources. Textiles production (including cotton farming) also uses around 93 billion cubic metres of water a year, contributing to problems in some water-scarce regions.

Through its brand Repreve, Unifi has transformed more than 10 billion plastic bottles into recycled fibre. © Unifi

Yesterday, the world marked Earth Day, an annual event celebrated on 22 April. Worldwide, various activities are held to demonstrate support for environmental protection. This year, the Earth Day Network is dedicated to providing the information needed to change human attitude and behaviour about plastics. Efforts are also being made by clothing brands, retailers, and other organisations to change the situation. Addressing a much wider problem of the current plastic pollution crisis, the companies are recycling plastic waste to create new garments and raise awareness among their consumers.

Anti-fast fashion

Unifi is one of the leading innovators in manufacturing recycled performance fibres. Through its brand Repreve, Unifi has transformed more than 10 billion plastic bottles into recycled fibre. This month, award-winning artist Mel Chin, Unifi’s Repreve fibre, and international fashion designer Tracy Reese teamed up to create a fashion project called Flint Fit. The project involved creating clothes made with Repreve fibre, transformed by Unifi from more than 90,000 used water bottles from Flint, where the water is contaminated with lead, forcing residents to rely upon bottled water for their everyday needs.

Aquafil is the company behind the Econyl Regeneration System for the production of Nylon 6 from 100% regenerated waste materials. Conceptualised and designed by Aquafil, with an investment of nearly EUR 25 million, this system was introduced in 2011 to produce nylon polymers from post and pre-consumer waste. In February, Aquafil and H&M joined forces for the H&M Conscious Exclusive collection, which for the first time featured pieces made from Econyl yarn. “Aquafil is thrilled to have Econyl adopted by H&M’s Conscious Exclusive collection. We have been working on this with H&M for more than two years, and it was wonderful to see it come to fruition. We are particularly excited about this partnership because H&M’s fashion is so accessible to the everyday consumer – which is in line with our vision for Econyl,” said Giulio Bonazzi, President of Aquafil.

Fashion project called Flint Fit. © Unifi

G-Star Raw for the Oceans, a clothing line made out of recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, launched in 2014, by a celebrity music icon Pharrell Williams. Since then, he presented several collections, which included garments made using recycled plastic removed from the oceans.

DGrade is a clothing manufacturer, supplying the eco-friendly products made from recycled plastic bottles. Last year, DGrade launched a new campaign called the Simply Bottles initiative to build the world’s first ‘plastic to yarn’ recycling plant in Dubai.

Ganesha Ecosphere is a leading PET-recycled Recycled Polyester Staple Fibre (RPSF) manufacturer in India. The company collects PET waste through more than 20 collection centres across India and turns it into apparel textiles, functional nonwoven fabrics, geo textiles, carpets, car upholstery, as well as fillings.

Ecoalf also uses recycled fabrics to create a new generation of sustainable products. “Ecoalf arose in 2009 from my frustration with the excessive use of the world’s natural resources and the amount of waste produced by industrialised countries. Ecoalf symbolises what I believe the fabrics and products of the new generations should be, a new fashion/lifestyle brand that integrates breakthrough technology to create clothing and accessories made entirely from recycled materials,” explains Javier Goyeneche, President and founder.

Aquafil is the company behind the Econyl Regeneration System for the production of Nylon 6 from 100% regenerated waste materials. © Aquafil

Byron Bay based Liar the Label makes sustainable swimwear from recycled polyester, which is made from single use ocean plastics, like bottles and fishing nets. Riz boardshorts in the UK are inspired by Saville Row but use a material that’s made from recycled ocean plastics. Hamilton Perkins makes weekender bags in a range of colours out of plastic bottles. Brightly coloured swimwear brand Ocean Zen, led by CEO Steph Gabriel, a marine biologist, makes its bikinis from recycled bottles and fishing nets.

Cult boot company Timberland has been adding recycled plastic bottles to their shoes for years, using them to create soles. The brand wants to make sure 100% of its footwear contains recycled or organic material by 2020. Rothy’s flat shoes are also made by knitting recycled water bottle plastic.

Solution or problem?

Whilst transforming recycled plastic into clothing provides an appealing solution to the amount of plastic waste floating in the oceans or covering the land, there are also concerns that this approach may doing more harm when it comes to another form of plastic pollution – microplastics. It has been estimated that half a million tonnes of plastic microfibres, equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles, shed during washing ends up in the ocean and ultimately enters the food chain. According to Dr Mark Browne, an ecologist and postdoctoral fellow at the NCEAS in Santa Barbara, CA, every time a synthetic garment goes through the spin and rinse cycle in a washing machine, it sheds a large number of plastic fibres, and most washing machines don’t have filters to trap these particles, and neither do sewage plants.

Despite the dangers of plastic microfibers, however, the recycling of plastic into clothes may still have its benefits. According to Adrian Midwood, founder of the Leisure Activist Group, turning plastic bottles into new purposeful objects may help capture plastic waste and also create some jobs in areas, where waste or recycling management programmes are available, preventing large-scale pollution.

It has been estimated that half a million tonnes of plastic microfibres, equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles, shed during washing ends up in the ocean and ultimately enters the food chain.

Also, creating rPET resin suitable for yarn production uses 50% less energy than is needed to manufacture virgin Polyester from scratch, 55% few carbon emissions are released and 20% less water is used, according to DGrade.

Other options

Another way to offset the negative effects of the wasteful and polluting clothing industry is using bio-derived materials, such as cellulose, as well as investing into research to inform textiles manufacturing. “It is essential that we continue to research and experiment with new technologies and sustainable materials. For example, we’ve partnered with the bio-tech company Genomatica to develop a bio-based nylon ingredient. While research is important, brands also have a responsibility to take action in whatever ways they can now, so progress is not delayed,” said Giulio Bonazzi.

Another company looking for innovative solutions to better the environment is Cosmos Studio, a sustainable apparel start-up brand based in Hong Kong, which started shipping the first orders of its new line of unisex shirts made with the lowest consumption of fresh water, this February, after launching the project through a successful Kickstarter campaign at the end of last year. The shirt production is powered by a new colour diffusion technology that is said to make it 95% more eco-friendly, compared to any other apparel making process.

The Cosmos Studio shirt production is powered by a new colour diffusion technology that is said to make it 95% more eco-friendly, compared to any other apparel making process. © Cosmos Studio

“One of the problems the industry needs to address is the disruption that has been caused by the fast fashion sector. The environmental and human costs accompanying fast fashion is too huge to be ignored and the power of fast fashion needs to be further diluted. Furthermore, circular economy principles need to be integrated to the value chains of companies rather than being a marketing-focused CSR initiative. We have seen a lack of commercialisation of sustainable prototypes in the industry, indicating that the commercial advantage of sustainable fashion is still deemed low,” said Jeffrey Man, co-founder.

Further reading

Shared vision for a sustainable fashion future

A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future

Recycled Plastic Clothing: Solution or Threat?

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