This seems like such a great idea. And in some ways it really is. Although, there are downsides too; there always is. Let's take a closer look at this one.
Polyester (and other synthetic fabrics – nylon, spandex, lycra) are made from fossil fuels. In simple terms, these fabrics are made from a petroleum derivative. The fabrics created are wrinkle free, versatile, easy to clean and quick drying. I guess this explains why they became so popular so quickly. At the moment, polyester production is second only to cotton production in terms of quantity. As well as the fossil fuels, the processing involved uses enormous amounts of water and chemicals and both the byproducts and the raw materials are highly polluting and toxic. Wow, it is not looking good!
Recycled polyester is not quite the same thing though, and is worth looking at more closely. It uses PET as the raw material. That's what clear plastic bottles are made of, and by recycling them, the bottles don't go straight to landfill. When plastic was first invented, everyone thought it was a thing of wonder. In a lot of ways it is. The thing with plastic is that it doesn't go away. That can be a big problem but it's also what has made plastic so useful. And it's what makes reusing it such a great idea. You can make things with it that are durable, hard wearing and versatile. Fabric that is durable, hard wearing and versatile. Not the fast fashion kind of thing. The kind of products that you can wear and wear and wear.
I was pretty surprised to discover that the process of turning plastic bottles into fabric is not as complex or resource heavy as I expected. This is another big plus. Basically, the plastic is cleaned, heated, passed through a spinneret (spiders and silkworms have spinnerets but in this case it's a plate with holes through which the polyester is passed, turning it into something like yarn), wound up and then crimped. This makes it kind of fluffy, and who doesn't love just the right amount of fluffy! Finally it is baled, dyed and knitted or woven into fabric. Compared to some of the other fibres used for clothing, it's quite a simple process with a pretty limited amount of water required and with little waste. When you consider that the fabric can be recycled almost indefinitely into new products it's a resource with a lot of potential.
As I said, the thing with plastic is that it doesn't go away. This brings us to the big downside. It's a teeny tiny one that all adds up. Every time a polyester garment is washed it sheds microfibres. Tiny slivers of plastic which enter the water system and really stick around. All the way down to the sea and into the digestive systems of the food chain.
On the other hand, the plastic is already there and recycling it for clothing reduces the need to use fossil fuels and other resources to make more fabric and it stops the bottles sitting in landfill. Once we've made the plastic bottles, we have to look for the best ways to reuse and recycle them.
Recycled polyester is definitely one option with quite a lot going for it. Still not perfect, but something else to consider is which garments it might be best suited to. For example clothes which are worn close to the skin and therefore need lots of washing might not be the best choice. On the other hand, coats and outer garments which need less cleaning and also need to be really durable might be a good choice for recycled polyester. This is why we have chosen to make outwear, like our Stevie Fleece and our Rhoden Jacket, from the material.
It also makes me wonder if there are different cleaning methods that are preferable too. Turns out front loading washing machines generate less micro fibres than top loaders. Sometimes in the small details, there is a better choice to be made.
I also came across this company who make bags to put your polyester garments into before putting them in the wash, this bag then catches the microfibres and stops them entering the waterways. I cannot find how they recommend to dispose of the fibres afterwards, but it does sound like it take a lot of washes for them to build up to large amounts.
Our carbon footprint
There's been some interesting news in the British media this month. Some scientists are keen to point out that we've become very sensitive to the question of plastic, to the exclusion of other environmental issues. The one they were particularly keen to highlight was the carbon footprint involved in some of the packaging options that seem at first sight to be more environmentally friendly.
If we replace plastic packaging with paper or cardboard, that is better in some respects (it's biodegradable for one) but it does also have a really big carbon footprint because of the process of producing it. In trying to do better, we need to look at as many sides of the problem as possible. I sometimes wonder if it's a question of scale and a question of innovation.
Once I started looking into this, I realised there are some amazing people putting their extraordinary brains to this problem. One example is the work of Kate Goldsworthy, who is using lasers instead of glue, chemicals, stitching or paste in the finishing of the garments she is working on. This will make the garments completely recyclable. Another good example is a company called Patagonia who ask customers to return items they have finished with in order to repurpose them where possible, and were just about the first clothing company to start working with recycled polyester.
So despite the downsides of recycled polyester, in some ways this versatile fabric represents the amazing innovation that is taking place in the clothing industry. There don't seem to be any perfect solutions but recycled polyester may have an important place in the fashion industry, and might also lead on to better solutions, focusing on reducing our need for new, and reusing what we already have.
Say hello to our latest recycled collection, all made from plastic bottles!
'Rhoden' Sherpa fleece jacket
'Stevie' Recycled Polar fleece
As always if you have any feedback please let us know, we try to find information that is as accurate as possible, but if you think we missed something or misrepresented anything please let us know.