Many fashion brands are now making clothes from recycled plastic. Brands claim this is a greener option. However, is making clothes from recycled plastic really eco-friendly? Let’s take a deep look into the recycling clothing industry.

Many fast fashion brands are using materials such as BCI Cotton and polyester clothing made from recycled plastic bottles to convince us of their ethical credentials.

I’ve already taken a deep look into BCI Cotton and found it isn’t particularly sustainable or ethical. In fact, it is significantly reducing the demand for organic cotton. So let’s take a look into clothing made from recycled plastic bottles to see if this option is any more sustainable or eco-friendly, or if fast-fashion retailers are just trying to pull the (fake) wool over our eyes.

How Are Clothes Made Out of Plastic Bottles?

Firstly, you might be wondering just how clothes are made out of plastic bottles.

To make recycled polyester clothing, firstly, plastic bottles are broken down into small plastic flakes. These flakes are then melted into tiny pellets of plastic. These pellets are then heated and spun into threads. The thread is then passed through a crimping machine which creates a fluffy, wooly texture, rather than a rigid plastic texture. From there, the thread can be used in many different types of clothing in place of virgin polyester.

Virgin polyester is a man-made plastic-based fabric, that is made from fossil fuels, such as crude oil and natural gas. So it makes sense to replace virgin plastics with recycled plastics? Right?

Are Clothes Made From Recycled Plastic Actually Eco-Friendly?

Image of crushed plastic bottles on a blue background, with a blue text box that says is clothing made from recycled plastic eco-friendly.

Unsurprisingly, fast fashion brands are trying to fleece us. This is because it turns out there are a number of issues when it comes to making clothes out of recycled plastic bottles.

The Impact of Downcycling

The process of converting plastic bottles and other types of plastic waste into clothing is widely known as downcycling. This is because clothing made from recycled plastic bottles cannot be recycled. Once done, then currently clothing can only be sent to landfill.

Plastic bottles can be recycled multiple times and made into new plastic bottles. Recycling plastic bottles to make more plastic bottles reduces the amount of virgin plastic the plastic industry needs. Therefore, a further-reaching impact is that the process of turning plastic bottles into clothes takes them out of this circular recycling loop. The plastic bottle industry, therefore, has to turn to virgin plastic to fill the gap left by fashion brands stockpiling plastic to make unrecyclable clothing.

Isn’t There More Than Enough Plastic To Go Round?

You might be wondering what the big deal is with clothing made from recycled plastic? Are there not tonnes of plastic bottles in circulation – more than we can actually cope with? The fashion industry can’t make that much of a dent in the amount of plastic available?

Undeniably, yes, there is a plastic mountain. However, not all plastic is created equally. Plastic bottles are made from a type of plastic called PET – polyethylene terephthalate. PET is a clear, strong, and lightweight plastic that can cope with being recycled multiple times. In fact, it is the world’s preferred packaging material for foods and beverages. And as such, it is the world’s most recycled plastic. This type of plastic generally isn’t being sent abroad for disposal. Instead, it is being recycled and used – unlike other lower-grade plastics.

When it comes to clothing, using recycled polyester instead of virgin polyester does sound like a good idea. The issue when it comes to clothing is scale. H&M says that 90% of its recycled polyester comes from plastic bottles. H&M alone produces 3 million items of clothing a year.  

If you multiply that across all of the other fast fashion brands that are producing clothing from recycled plastic bottles, such as Primark, Next, BooHoo, and more, then we are talking about an awful lot of potentially recyclable plastic bottles being taken out of a closed-loop plastic bottle recycling system, and being used to make non-recyclable clothing.

The Fast Fashion Problem

One of the many issues with fast fashion clothing is that shoppers wear an item of clothing just a few times before it is discarded. When our charity shops are overrun by cheap clothing which they can’t sell, it gets sold off to developing countries. Here it is chopped up into rags, sold on at markets, or thrown into landfill. It simply isn’t sustainable to buy so many clothes, even if they are made from plastic bottles.

The Microplastics Issue

One of the other main problems with clothing made from plastic, whether it is virgin plastic or recycled plastic, is that they release microplastics when they are washed. Researchers have found that laundering synthetic clothing is the main source of microplastic in our oceans.

Microplastics are what we call fragments of any type of plastic less than 5 mm in length. Sometimes these are visible to the human eye, other times they are so small that they cannot be seen. Microplastics enter our food chain when they enter our oceans and waterways, and enter our soil.

This microplastic then ends up in our food, and ultimately in our bodies. Although studies into the effects of microplastic consumption are in their early days, scientists have discovered microplastics can cause adverse reactions on a cellular level in our bodies.

Fast fashion retailers have so far buried their heads in the sand when it comes to the microplastic issue. Retailers continue to sing the praises of clothing made from recycled plastic and continue to mislead consumers that recycled plastic is an eco-friendly choice. I have found not a single example of a fast-fashion retailer educating consumers on some of the issues associated with synthetic clothing.

And what’s worse is that H&M has no plans to decrease the amount of clothing it intends to produce. Instead, they are planning to double sales by 2030. You simply cannot be an ethical retailer and sell 6 billion items of clothing a year – no matter how many items of clothing you make from plastic bottles.

What Should I Buy Instead?

where to buy ethical clothing uk

If you are wondering what to buy instead of clothing made from recycled plastic bottles, then there are lots of other sustainable choices you can make.

The first is not buying anything you don’t need. The most sustainable items of clothing are the ones you already own. Re-wearing your clothes again and again, looking after them, and fixing them if they rip is 100% the most sustainable solution.

If you need new clothes, try swapping with your friends, or taking part in an organised clothes swap.

Shopping secondhand is also a great sustainable option, that’s low impact.

Finally, buying clothes made from natural fibres from sustainable clothing brands, where possible, is another environmentally friendly way of buying new clothes.

When Is Recycled Plastic A Good Choice When It Comes to Clothing?

In certain cases, clothing made from recycled plastic can be a good environmental choice.

When it comes to swimwear, for example, it is not possible to make swimwear from 100% natural fabrics, and still have the properties that we expect swimwear to have. In this case, look for swimwear made from ECONYL®.  This is an innovative fabric that directly tackles plastic pollution in the ocean by taking nylon waste from carpet offcuts and discarded fishing nets, rather than plastic bottles. I have a full guide to ethical swimwear and to swimwear made from recycled plastic that will help you out.

Gym wear is another area where it is often tricky to find performance clothing made from natural fibres. In case, the use of recycled plastics in these types of clothing is a better choice than using virgin plastic. I’m working on putting together a guide to ethical gym wear, so watch this space!

How To Wash These Performance Fabrics

One solution at the individual level is to wash your activewear in a product that catches microplastic, such as a Guppyfriend*. The microplastics should then be discarded in the bin, rather than washing them down your sink.

To be honest, this action at the individual level is a sticking plaster for a wider issue. I’m more of a fan of interventions at the governmental and manufacturer level. This is because I don’t think this should be an issue for individuals to shoulder the responsibility or cost of. In the UK, the Government binned off the idea of getting to install microplastic filters on all new washing machines. Encouragingly though, Australia and California have recently announced plans to ensure that manufacturers must install microplastic filters on all new washing machines. Therefore, continuing to press on the Government for action on microplastics is therefore key.

Other things you can do to help limit microplastic release from your clothing is to gently hand wash your pieces in cold water, rather than machine washing it. Line drying rather than tumble drying also helps limit microplastic shedding.

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