Why Plastic Has No Place In The Fashion Industry, Including Recycled Plastic

by | Jan 9, 2019 | Sustainable Fashion

Stunning photo by Velizar Ivanov via Unsplash

Fashion should be plastic-free. You’ve probably seen the ads, there’s a booming movement with upcycling post-consumer plastic (ex. water bottles) into wearables. Brands like Everlane, Madewell, Eileen Fisher, Adidas, and Patagonia have either been doing it for years or have suddenly jumped on board with this innovation. Everlane recently came out with their ReNEW collection turning plastic bottles into puffer jackets, fleece pullovers, and parkas. Eileen Fisher, an OG in a sustainable fashion, also uses recycled fibers from plastic water bottles. Adidas’ Parley shoes are made from ocean plastic. The list goes on and on.

As consumers, we love the idea of adding new apparel to our closet while also doing our part to keep the environment free from unwanted plastic, to us it’s a win-win. We have an innate desire to do the right thing and companies are all over it. While the idea of repurposing plastic and keeping it out of landfills is great and all, funneling our recycled plastic into the fashion industry is unfortunately not the answer.

The majority of clothing today is made of synthetic petroleum-based (plastic) fibers like polyester, nylon, acrylic, and spandex. But plastic is better suited for industries where it will have longevity, and the ability to be reshaped into something else again. The construction, medical, automotive, or aviation industries are much more responsible areas for our recycled plastic. An example is ByFusion, a company from New Zealand on a mission to find a deep solution to plastic that already exists. They turn recycled plastic into bricks to create housing. This reduces the amount of local environmental pollution and enables individuals, communities, and companies to transition plastic waste into something useful. This advanced new building material, which accepts ALL types of plastic, can’t bear as much weight as concrete, but it has great acoustic and thermal insulation properties. Plus, the bricks have a 95% lower emission footprint than concrete blocks. They are ideal for use in road projects or fill-in building frames. This is an incredible innovation that could immensely benefit underdeveloped communities where pollution is high. ByFusion is just one of many companies finding long term solutions for plastic waste.

Photos from ByFusion

There are three big issues when it comes to plastic turned fiber. But first, why did we even start make clothing out of plastic? Natural fibers have their limitations, and while for thousands of years that’s all mankind used, in the mid 1940’s we found we could make clothing out of petroleum or petrochemicals. This was faster to produce, easier to maintain, cheaper, and could even be more durable.

The most popular fibers in the world are synthetic, accounting for 65% of the world’s production versus only 35% for natural fibers. Approximately 70% of synthetic fibers are made from polyester, otherwise known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) in textiles.

1. PLASTIC FIBERS BECOME UNRECYCLABLE

Once the post-consumer plastic is crushed into pellets and then spun into yarn ready to be weaved into fabric, the fiber hits its final stage. Plastics cannot indefinitely be recycled – a common misconception. Once the fibers are woven into fabrics most of them are rendered non-recyclable. This is because almost always the fabrics have a chemical backing, lamination, or another type of finish. Or they are blends of different synthetics like polyester and nylon. The fabric is unsuitable for the mechanical method of recycling because it cannot separate the various chemicals to produce recycled yarn. Maybe one day we will have the money and factories to do such a task but as of now, it is not possible. Since recycled fabric becomes unrecyclable and it’s certainly not biodegradable it is only a short-term solution for diverting post-consumer plastic from landfills, but ultimately that’s where the clothing will eventually end up.

I feel this particular information is not well known right now, and will definitely take time to gain traction before there are changes in how recycled plastic is viewed within the fashion industry.

graphic of the process to create fiber out of recycled plastic.

2. SYNTHETIC CLOTHING SHEDS MICROPLASTIC FIBERS

When synthetic clothing is washed tiny microplastic fibers shed during the wash cycle. These little microplastic fibers make their way through the waterways and eventually into our lakes, rivers, and oceans. Plastic microfibers represent up to 85% of the plastic pollution found on shorelines around the world. You’ve heard the statistic, at this pace by 2050 we’ll have more plastic than fish in the ocean. Not to mention fish eat these plastics and they eventually make their way up the food chain on to our plates. It was found that 73% of the deep-sea fish caught in the Northwest Atlantic had microplastics in their stomachs. Right now, our best solution for this problem is washing synthetic clothing in a microfilament bag. These bags collect the microplastic fibers so they can easily be disposed of properly. You could also try a Cora Ball, but these only catch up to 35% of microplastic fibers per load. Recycled plastic fabric would be no different in shedding microplastics, another reason clothing should stay plastic-free.

Photo from The Guppy Friend

3. SYNTHETIC CLOTHING IS NOT EASY ON THE SKIN

On another side of this topic are the health effects of wearing synthetic clothing. Synthetic fibers are ultimately derived from petroleum which can wreak havoc on the skin, especially clothing designed for activity where our skin is more prone to absorbing what lies on top of it. Synthetic activewear always has some type of chemical finish applied in order to boost wicking performance. It’s less of a concern with apparel like outer jackets that wouldn’t pose a significant risk to exposure compared to sports bras or leggings. Sweat and movement friction prompt a more rapid absorption of hazardous substances from the fabric to the skin. Phthalates and formeldahyde are among the long list of chemicals to look out for. Some companies, like Patagonia, are outsourcing high-performance organic fibers and seeking natural alternatives to chemical finishes because of this.

So what’s the long-term solution to these problems? Answer: Natural fibers.
Ditching synthetic fibers, even recycled synthetic fibers, for natural fibers like cotton, hemp, silk, wool, and linen are a more environmental and health-conscious choice. Preferably from organic farming and ethically treated animals. If these natural fibers were to end up in the middle of a woods or on a shoreline they would degrade like a boss, leaving little to no impact on the environment around them. This is the best way to keep fashion circular.

Photo by Oscar Aguilar via Unsplash

WHERE TO SHOP

These awesome brands are just a few of many that make their garments out of natural fibers, check them out!

If you’ve been supporting companies that use recycled synthetic material, don’t feel bad by any means. I know I myself have a few garments hanging in my closet. This is a new revelation as the sustainable fashion movement develops and will take time to catch on. Hopefully one day all clothing will only be made of natural fibers. In the meantime, look out for clothing made of biodegradable material, but don’t feel guilty if you have clothing made of recycled plastic!

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A quick note: I decided to delve into this topic and write this piece after watching a live on @renee.elizabethpeters Instagram channel with guest @celinecelines. I highly recommend following both of them!
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