Did you know that most recycled polyester, or rPET, found in shoes and clothing is made from plastic bottles that have been recycled? These bottles are sorted and washed, and then broken down into small particles called “flakes.” These particles are then melted down and extruded to become a fiber that can be knitted or woven to create a textile, that ultimately becomes the base for so much of the clothing you see on racks today. These recycled textiles have all of the same properties of virgin polyester, and are used often in sportswear because of their sweat-wicking and temperature-controlling attributes. So… using a recycled poly fabric sounds like a good idea, right? Mmm not so much. When we take a closer look, it's not all so rosy.
Brands have been using recycled polyester since the early 1990s, but recently, its use in everything from shoes to bags to sport bras has skyrocketed. Why? Well, in the past ten years, companies in every single industry have been pressured to reduce their environmental impact, and by using recycled materials in place of virgin ones, brands can claim that they are doing just that. In turn, you’ll find greenwashing campaigns often applauding the use of these recycled synthetic materials, while conveniently leaving out the problems that they create.
The positive impact of using recycled materials made from water bottles is not so clear. This is because the bottles used to make recycled polyester and other textiles were already on their way to be recycled - and making them into a fiber actually disrupts that circular value chain. Simply put: making bottles into clothes doesn’t “save them from a landfill” like so many brands claim - in fact, it takes something that could be recycled many times over - and turns it into something that cannot be recycled at all. So the original plastic material ends up in a landfill in the form of your old leggings.
Conversely, the bottles could easily be recycled into new bottles multiple times over, whereas the leggings cannot. While textile recycling technology exists, it is still in early development and remains expensive to companies and inaccessible to most consumers. Unfortunately, using bottles to make clothes disrupts an established cradle-to-cradle system, and turns it into something linear - without an environmentally-sound final destination.
As a reminder: recycled polyester also releases microplastics when washed - just like the virgin version. These microplastics end up in our water systems and our food, and have even recently been found in people’s bloodstream.
For all of the issues that recycled polyester presents, there are some categories of clothing where recycled synthetics are the preferred fabric solution, like in performance sports pieces for example. But otherwise, its prevalence is entirely unnecessary other than to serve the bottom line of the manufacturer. There is no reason that we should be wearing polyester sweaters or dresses - and definitely not underwear. That’s why we opt for 100% GOTS certified organic cotton, which is grown beneficially without harmful pesticides, breathes comfortably and doesn’t release icky microplastics.
- Recycled PET is Not a Solution for Sustainable Fashion. Modefica. 19 October 2019. https://medium.com/modefica-global/recycled-pet-is-not-a-solution-for-sustainability-in-fashion-456d4049563c
- The destructive, symbiotic relationship between the beverage and fashion industries. New Standard Institute. 14 November 2021. https://www.newstandardinstitute.org/the-destructive-symbiotic-relationship-between-the-beverage-and-fashion-industries
- Microplastics found in human blood for first time. The Guardian. 22 March 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/mar/24/microplastics-found-in-human-blood-for-first-time