Making textiles out of recycled plastic: is it sustainable?
With sustainable fashion increasing in popularity, one of the buzz initiatives and processes of the year is textiles made from recycled plastic. The resulting fabric is stretchy, light, inexpensive and perfect for activewear! A lot of fashion brands in the past few years have been releasing collections featuring recycled polyester, which is the textile that results from the recycled plastic.
Polyester derives from crude oil and polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. This material is made of long chain polymers and can be broken down, recycled, and re-spun into synthetic fabrics. During “polymerization”, ethylene is mixed with dimethyl terephthalate and terephthalic acid and the outcome is liquid PET, which is extruded into fine ribbons. These ribbons of plastic are then cooled and cut up into little chips and melted, while that liquid is drawn and stretched to create a fibre that’s more flexible and stronger than rigid plastic.
While upcycling, using, and reducing our plastic waste is a fantastic reason to use recycled plastics, it can take nine clear plastic water bottles to make one T-shirt, 25 plastic bottles to make one pair of leggings, and 12 bottles for a Polo shirt.
There are two main ways to recycle plastics into textiles: the first one consists of chemically breaking down PET to its base polymers in an extensive process that can create a stronger fabric that can be recycled again; and the second one consists of mechanically breaking PET down, which is the process commonly used to recycle plastics at scale, by processing and melting the plastics before spinning them into new yarn. Compared to producing virgin textiles, both these processes are energy efficient and can reduce our dependence on crude oil to create plastics and polyester.
From a design point of view, the only way for this material to be fully sustainable is to be mechanically broken down again and again after each use. However, this would affect the quality of the products because mechanical recycling degrades the quality of the material, as the original polymer chain has been broken, and now can only be down-cycled.
While recycling plastics into textiles may seem like an overall obvious, positive option for the sustainability of the industry, there is another issue to be considered. The resulting textile, polyester, is derived from crude oil and polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, and doesn't biodegrade outside of lab conditions. It decomposes by slowly breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces, becoming microplastics, which are then responsible for polluting water and food chains, and affecting our ecosystems.
More than half a million metric tons of microfibers enter the ocean because of the washing of synthetic textiles. These plastics are in our water, in our air and in our food. According to a late WWF analysis, we ingest one plastic credit card a week through our food and water. Therefore, using recycled polyester releases these microfibers faster and using polyester at all still contributes to this problem.
Although the process has low carbon emissions and recycled polyester is an opportunity to reduce and reuse our plastic waste and fossil fuels, it can create a lower quality product and in the long run, polyester contributes to microfibers in our water. Hence, whilst it's admirable to try and create solutions and The reality of recycling plastics, PET into polyester is not clear cut in whether it’s good or bad, the process of recycling plastic into textiles cannot be sustainable.
(information sourced on sustainthemag.com)
(Featured image by Kseniya Kopna on Pixels)
(Image 1 by @fashionrevolution on Instagram)
(Image 2 by FLY:D on Unsplash)