How green are your leggings? Recycled polyester is not a silver bullet (yet)

A colleague was standing in entrance of me holding a swatch of shiny black polyester made out of upcycled marine litter.

“It’s recycled but is it recyclable?” I requested.

“No,” she mentioned, “it’ll end up in landfill.”

This was firstly of 2020 and we have been at a sustainable cloth expo in London. It was simply after the devastating Australian hearth season that razed 18.6m hectares of bushland and simply earlier than Covid-19 relegated us to 12 months of working from dwelling, understanding at dwelling and leaving dwelling sparingly. A interval by which workplace apparel was deserted and activewear was one of many solely style classes to thrive.

Since 2019, there was an 80% increase in activewear made out of recycled polyester and searches for sustainable activewear have increased 151%. A current McKinsey and Company ballot discovered that 67% of consumers take into account sustainable supplies an essential issue when shopping for clothes – so naturally manufacturers are scrambling to reply. Adidas and Reebok have pledged to exchange all virgin polyester (PET) with recycled polyester (rPET) by 2024, Asics has made the identical dedication for 2030, Nike’s web site touts merchandise manufactured from recycled supplies and Puma has promised to scale up its use of recycled polyester to 75% by 2025.

Which all appears great. Recycled polyester seems like one thing that is good for the setting. It seems like one thing that makes T-shirts, shorts and swimwear out of things destined for landfill. Given that the style business’s colossal carbon footprint is pushed largely by insurmountable ranges of waste – a 2017 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation discovered “one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned every second” – it is sensible that the narrative of recycled supplies would enchantment to shoppers.

Advocates imagine this waste may be captured and recycled again into clothes, decreasing the necessity for virgin fibres. In the case of polyester, which makes up virtually 64% of the global fibre market, the hope is it can eradicate the necessity for virgin polyester (which is really a frequent plastic derived from fossil fuels) altogether.

The actuality of what the expertise can ship is a little completely different.

The time period “recycled polyester” is used interchangeably to explain polyester made out of plastic waste, like water bottles, and polyester made out of discarded textiles. But as a result of the expertise for textile-to-textile recycling is nonetheless in its infancy (solely 1% of all clothing is recycled) a lot of the recycled polyester in the marketplace is made out of “downcycled” plastic.

Francois Souchet from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is forthcoming in regards to the limitations of the expertise. “Today mechanical recycling is mainly used to take plastic bottles and turn them into garments,” he says. Which seems like a good factor, besides that plastic may be recycled into plastic repeatedly. When plastic is was polyester, it is faraway from this closed loop system. “As it is today, bottles that have been turned into garments are no longer recyclable,” says Souchet. The different notable limitation of mechanical recycling is that the fibre retains the dye color from its first iteration, so it will probably solely be recycled into comparable colors.

Given the useful resource potential of textile waste and client demand for greener clothes, researchers around the globe are working to beat these points.

Chemical recycling of polyester overcomes lots of the issues current in mechanical recycling, as a result of it returns the fabric to the virgin high quality of its authentic kind. It does this by a course of that breaks down the polyester to its uncooked supplies, purifies them and converts them into new particles, and by eradicating all contamination and dyes, these supplies can then be recycled on a loop. But its availability at a viable industrial scale is restricted. The Japanese firm Teajin launched chemically recycled polyester with Patagonia in 2005, however the collaboration has skilled difficulties since Teajin moved its recycling facility to China in 2014.

Cyndi Rhoades, the founding father of Worn Again Technologies within the United Kingdom has a pilot plant up and working within the north of England the place they separate cotton and polyester fibre blends, seize the cellulose for different functions and recycle the polyester to be spun into new fibres. “Our ultimate goal is to replace the use of virgin resources as inputs … because we have enough textiles in circulation to supply our annual demand for new polyester, we just aren’t effectively collecting it and we aren’t able to effectively recycle it, because processes like this aren’t yet economically viable or widely available at scale.”

She says the “demand for textile-to-textile has reached fever pitch” and that due to this, “Adidas, H&M, Nike and Inditex are all moving in this direction, it’s just a matter of time.” To meet demand, the infrastructure for gathering and sorting post-consumer textile waste must considerably enhance. This requires funding in large-scale recycling applications to extend assortment charges, like incentivised drop off factors, in addition to expertise that may detect fibre content material and course of excessive volumes of textile waste.

Currently, sorting textiles depends on handbook labour, which is a drawback as a result of figuring out the completely different fibre sorts in a garment is vital to the recycling course of. EVRNU, a textile improvements firm in Seattle, has spent the final six years growing expertise that may precisely establish the completely different fibres in a garment utilizing synthetic intelligence and deep scanning to kind fibres shortly and with very excessive precision.

The co-founder and president of ERVNU, Christopher Stanev, says they shifted their focus to textile recycling of cellulosic fibres like cotton as a result of, “fibres like lyocell and cupro can perform in exactly the same way as polyester today.” Which is fascinating as a result of in contrast to polyester, which can take over 200 years to biodegrade, “nature is designed to break them down, it knows how to deal with them.” He says that utilizing the cellulose from cotton, “you can extrude fibre with the same or better performance, and you can do it multiple times and if the natural fibres do shed, they will disappear, similar to the biomass and the weeds that fall in the river and go into the ocean.”

By distinction, when a artificial garment (eg recycled polyester, polyester, nylon or Lycra) is put by a washer, it sheds plastic microfibres that find yourself in our oceans, rivers and soil. The variety of plastic microfibres getting into the ocean by 2050 may accumulate to an extra of 22m tonnes and, alarmingly, a study conducted in 2015 discovered them in 67% of all seafood at fish markets in California.

In Australia, the National Plastics Plan, introduced earlier this month, goals for “an industry-led phase-in of microfibre filters on new residential and commercial washing machines by 1 July 2030.”

Eco-activewear model Patagonia has additionally been trying into microplastics since 2016 and recognized that wastewater remedy crops may filter 65-92% of microfibre launch. However, Souchet contests this, saying, “the microfibres are so small, the level of filter needed to capture them actually starts significantly slowing down the flow of water that’s coming through … for industrial wastewater treatment plants that’s not sustainable.” He means that it could be higher to stop the issue by innovating on the fabric aspect and creating cloth that releases as few microfibres as attainable.

So, the holy grail is extremely advanced programs for waste assortment and sortation; and the creation of chemically recycled polyester that doesn’t shed microfibres. But this expertise is no less than a number of years away.

In the meantime, is polyester one thing we ought to be carrying in any respect? It’s a plastic, it’s a breeding floor for the micro organism that causes physique odour, and in contrast to pure fibres it doesn’t breathe.

When I put the query to Stanev, he says “polyester is an unnatural fibre, it’s not biodegradable, it is bio-accumulative. If we need to recycle it, we can, but it’s not a good application to be used in fibres. Maybe [we can use it] in construction, cars, things we can recover that don’t leak into the water systems.”

Souchet comes on the query from a completely different angle, “what we need is clothing that is worn more so that we decrease the over-production and over-consumption cycle we’re in. Our reliance on polyester needs to be reduced, absolutely.”

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