By Bronagh Loughlin
The concept of transforming plastic bottles into fabrics and objects is not new. Since the 1990s, brands have been converting recycled plastics into clothing and other such items. However, only now is the trendy recycled PET getting some spotlight and there has been a lot of talk about how it is a sustainable alternative to polyester.
It began with the likes of G-Star Raw and Raw For the Oceans initiative, then came Adidas, H&M, Nike and Stella McCartney to join the recycled plastics bandwagon. The list of brands that have fallen head over heels for recycled plastics does not seem to be slowing down either, you can find a version of just about everything that is made from recycled plastics.
Initially, it sounds like a great idea to transform the dreaded plastic bottle into a trendy outfit. However, when the initiative comes coupled with a ‘clean the ocean’ speech, the action gains even more popularity. Speaking honestly, no one wants oceans that contain more plastic than fish. Therefore, it is a relief to think that someone is solving plastic bottle pollution and keeping them out of the oceans and on top of that delivering a dose of conscious consumption, right?
While this may sound incredibly exciting and a true solution to the plastic crisis, when we look further and truly analyse the entire story, we will find that transforming plastic waste into clothing is not just a bad idea but also a setback when we think about systemic solutions for sustainability in the fashion industry.
Like anything, there are pros and cons to recycled plastics. In one way, it does have a positive effect on the amount of waste in our oceans and uses less CO2 emissions than that of virgin plastic. However, clothing made of recycled plastics still results in microplastics entering the ocean when they are washed. Additionally, there is the matter that it does not actually promote the circular economy.
Brands using recycled plastics in their clothing collections like to say they are practicing circular principles. By definition, the circular economy is a closed-loop cycle where recycled, reused or composted products become something of equal value in a circular cycle. Plastic fabrics, recycled or not, are not recycled when they reach the end of their life. Rather, they end up in landfills since there is no large-scale recycling technology for post-consumer textiles.
Bernard Merkx, Director and Owner at GreenWavePlastics says, “It is about time that all stakeholders strongly improve on their uptake of recycled plastics in a large number of applications. Some frontrunners, including myself, have paved the ways for those now starting to move. There is a ‘waste’ hierarchy prevention, reuse, recycling and then recovery (= incineration) and landfill. There is a need to stop some of the overconsumption and poor design, but once it has been produced, we should keep it in a high-quality loop as long as we can. Reusable products (including refurbishment), and new business models will go hand in hand with the transition toward this closed high-quality loop .”
By replacing virgin plastics with recycled plastics, we can save around 30-40% of CO2 emissions. An economy without plastics is difficult to imagine and as a result, we need to keep the material in high-quality controlled loops and ensure that all companies who are putting products on the market have an extended responsibility to deal with the end of the first life of these products and to use these recyclates to form a new generation of products. Only a part of plastic is used for packaging and there are very few litter problems with a majority of other applications, including reusable packaging. There are, however, major problems with numerous single use packaging, which are the top 10-20 most littered items and there is still a considerable number of poor design product choices to remain in a linear economy concept.
The possibility of ending the use of synthetic fibres in fashion is not likely. Therefore, a sincere and open conversation about these fabrics is vital. Using recycled plastics should be a solution for items that need to be made of plastic, such as accessories, elastane products and sportswear. However, recycled plastic needs to be sourced from the industry itself, not just to promote a genuine closed-loop but also to account for discarded nylon, polyester, polyamide and elastane.
The materials should be constructed and designed without the need to mix with other fibres, particularly virgin ones, to avoid the creation of hybrid monsters. Also, paying attention to technology applied to reducing the unwrapping of microplastics at wash time and being made not to wash or wash little, as is the case with shoes and bags.
In order to accomplish this, companies must research and create reverse logistic initiatives as well as to fund technology to innovate further. To make sure a recycled plastic garment does not find its way into the natural environment or on landfill, companies should also be applying circular principles in their own business. It may sound impossible or complicated, there are brands already doing it such as Houdini and Patagonia.
Recycled plastics are not the solution, We need to find ways to make our clothing more sustainable, without plastic. The time to act is now, we cannot allow our oceans to house more plastic than fish.
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