Are recycled plastics the future of fashion?

I’ll be the first to admit that wearing recycled plastic bottles on my feet really does something for my fashion ego. I can now stroll down the streets of Utrecht with a lighter conscious (and a slight hole in my purse). Converse recently released their Renew range which is made entirely from recycled polymers. Every trainer bears the collection’s critical reminder: life is too short to waste.

Converse aren’t the only ones jumping on the bandwagon. Outdoor clothing brand, Patagonia, claims to be “the first outdoor clothing manufacturer to transform trash into fleece.” Ohoy Swimwear notably collects plastic and fishing nets from the ocean and regenerates the waste into luxurious Italian fabric. Meanwhile, Everlane collects, chips, melts and spins plastic into yarn to be repurposed into colourful, puffy jackets.

I recently read an article by Wired which championed plastics as the future of fashion and, at first glance, it was easy to see why. In just six decades, humans have produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic – of which only 9% is estimated to have ever been recycled. The rest normally ends up in landfill, where it will sit for hundreds of years. Synthetic fibres like polyester, lycra and nylon are found in over half of our clothes and often face a similar fate.

Recycling plastic into wearable fashion should therefore be commended for its efforts to delitter our planet. Recycled polyester also has a much lower ecological footprint than virgin polyester, requiring less resources and energy in the production process.

While it’s certainly a step in the right direction, I'm sceptical that it's the solution to fast fashion. For starters, there’s already plenty of microplastics in the sea and this will only make the problem worse. A study carried out by Imogen Napper at the University of Plymouth calculated that when a synthetic garment is washed, it can shed up to 700,000 individual microfibres. That’s a lot of microplastic, with some scientists estimating that this is the biggest source of plastic in the oceans. These toxic microfibres are finding their way into our waters, eventually ending up in our food chain.

Part of the solution may lie in the guppy bag: a relatively affordable investment designed to capture the microfibres during each wash cycle. Or we could become more mindful of how often we wash our clothes. We're all guilty of only wearing a tee once before chucking it in the laundry basket. Underwear and gym wear beside, most of our clothes can be reworn multiple times before needing to be washed. Plus, it’s good for your energy bill and your clothes won’t fade so quickly.

But even if we commit to more frugal washing cycles, what happens when these clothes are discarded? In the age of disposable fashion, clothes are worn for an average of seven times before being thrown away. While a plastic bottle can be recycled many times, we lack the technology to recycle clothes made from recycled plastic. So, the chances are that recycled, non-biodegradable clothes will also find their way to landfill. We need to be advocating for a more circular fashion economy, not looking for short-term solutions to extend the life of a product by one.

There’s also the issue of recycling itself. There is only a limited supply of recycled plastic on the market due to a poor global recycling effort. In Europe, 58% of bottles are recycled, a figure which declines to 30% in the United States. Less prosperous countries often lack the waste management infrastructure to encourage such a scheme. I worry that, if there’s increased demand for recycled plastic fashion, this demand will be met by producing more virgin plastic with the justification that it will later be recycled into a new pair of shoes. We already have enough bloody plastic in the world!!

In its 2017 Fashion at the Crossroads report, Greenpeace questioned the fast fashion industry’s priorities. Plastic pollution is undoubtedly an important planetary issue, but it shouldn’t distract from the high carbon emissions, the polluted waters, the toxic chemicals, the deforestation, the desertification and the waste epidemic that the fashion industry also helps to create. Another worry of mine is that brands will start launching more recycled lines to distract from such truths. Greenwashed attempts will be made to hail recycled plastic as the sustainable alternative, creating further problems in its wake.

Greenpeace also doubt that this short-term waste management approach really gets to the heart of the problem. That big, ugly problem is that we are consuming fashion at a rate that far exceeds our planets ability to cope. We need to massively slow down our fashion consumption, and fast.

Well that certainly takes the glory out of my latest purchase! Converse’s intention to design waste out of its supply chain is there, but it’s probably misplaced. I’m also a bit iffy about supporting Converse in the future, owing to their low score on the Good on You brand directory. They might be re-evaluating the materials they use in their trainers but there is no evidence to suggest Converse pays the workers in their supply chain a living wage.

That’s not to say that recycled plastic clothing is the worst idea in the world. It’s definitely the lesser of two evils – the evil being virgin plastic. But for there to be recycled plastic fashion, there needs to be a constant flow of virgin plastic to be recycled – and Coca Cola certainly doesn’t need any more incentive to produce 200,000 bottles every minute! Sadly, recycled plastics aren’t the one shining solution to the fast fashion industry after all.

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©2020 by Melissa Watt.