Why Recycled PET Will Not Make Your Brand More Sustainable

By Bronagh Loughlin

In recent years, fast fashion has come under fire for its impact on the environment, its use of low-quality materials and its poor treatment of factory workers. As more and more people become increasingly conscious of what they are buying, in particular, when it comes to clothing, fast fashion brands are looking for ways to improve. 

One way many fast fashion houses are doing so is by releasing conscious collections, clothing lines made of sustainable materials or even, recycled materials. While the entire fast fashion brand may not be sustainable, by releasing a conscious collection, they can position themselves to their audience that they are making steps to become more sustainable. 

While some brands are dedicated to becoming sustainable leaders, some may not realise that the recycled PET they are using may not actually be sustainable or a solution to the impact fast fashion has on the environment. Consumers may purchase these products, reading the word ‘recycled’ and think it is automatically sustainable and promoting the circular economy.  

However, unfortunately, it is far from that. While PET is so easily recyclable, it is still a plastic and that has many downsides. In its fabric form, recycled PET and polyester fabrics contain microfibres from microplastics, which can create a big problem. Each time synthetic fabric is washed, thousands of these tiny plastic particles are released into the water. These eventually make their way into places such as rivers, lakes and the ocean. 

Once they have entered these environments, they not only pollute the water, they also harm the animals living in the water. When these animals ingest microplastics, the particles get all tangled up in their digestive tracts and disrupt the normal function of their bodies. As we consume animals that live in these waters, it is inevitable that we will also end up ingesting plastics, harming our own bodies too. 

Unfortunately, the physical process of recycling PET can also have poor impacts on the environment. While creating a product from recycled plastics requires much less energy than creating first-time plastic, it still creates a number of challenges. Melting down recycled PET releases volatile organic compounds, which are harmful to the planet and the wildlife living around the production site. Additionally, the carbon emissions released in the process only furthers environmental degradation.  

While PET material in good condition can be used to create items of equal value, it is challenging for recycling facilities to produce well sorted, pristine plastics. This means that a majority of recycled plastic cannot create products of the same quality. Rather, many of these plastics are downcycled i.e., used to create items of lesser value. Recycled PET is not a perfect solution, and it does not solve the fact that once plastic is created, it is here to stay for an increasingly long time.  

Luke McMillan, Founder of Sea Sense Flip Flops, a brand who create 100% biodegradable flip flops and use profits to prevent millions of plastic bottles entering our oceans each year, says, “There are numerous companies out there that are using recycled plastic or recovered ocean plastic to make their products, but for us, this doesn’t send the right message. As a planet we have a plastic addiction, and we need to start weaning ourselves from it. By using recycled plastic, we would be endorsing plastic as a material, and that is the last thing we want to do. As a priority, we need to stop plastic use.” 

“I think that any action against plastic pollution is worthwhile, so I will always celebrate people cleaning up our oceans, and removing plastics. However, I think that the focus right now should be on stopping the plastics making it to the ocean in the first place, otherwise we will always be fighting a losing battle.” 

We cannot utter the words ‘sustainable fashion’ if recycled PET is the material being used. We need to get away from the idea of relying on plastics which remain on the planet for hundreds of years. While it may be recycled, it is not a solution for the textile industry due to the negative impacts it brings about to the planet, wildlife and human health.  

There are many alternative materials out there that fit the description of ‘sustainable fashion’ more accurately, such as hemp, linen, wool and cashmere, the list goes on. One of the greatest challenges we face when it comes to climate change is plastic and as a result, this is a reason to try and cut it out rather than embracing it. The textiles industry can be a top player if they adopt actual sustainable materials.  

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