If you’ve been scouring the internet for a new bathing suit this summer, you may have stumbled upon the latest sustainable fashion trend: bikinis and knickers made from plastic bottles, supposedly derived from the ocean.
At online retailers in the US and UK, the volume of swimwear and sportswear reported to contain recycled plastics more than doubled in the year to June compared to 2020, according to retail intelligence platform Edited.
Plastic waste has infiltrated almost every sector. Sneaker brands, from Nike and Adidas to ‘sustainable’ labels such as Veja and Greats, rely on them for their green credentials.
Couture designers have created bizarre plastic looks to make a statement on the runway. This year, Japanese designer Tomo Koizumi showed voluminous dresses made of recycled plastic organza in bubblegum pink, yellow and blue. In 2019 Prada re-released its iconic 90s nylon bag in a recycled version.
You can even buy all this with an Amex credit card made from plastic waste.
The boom probably started about 15 years ago. American manufacturer Unifi launched a recycled polyester fiber in 2007, with outdoor clothing companies Patagonia and Polartec as the first customers for fleece outerwear that became a meme in the financial sector.
The fiber now makes up nearly 40 percent of sales and some 800 brands use it. The rest of Unifi’s products are so-called virgin synthetics.
Switching to recycled polyester is an efficient choice because of the direct environmental impact. According to the nonprofit Textile Exchange, it produces about 70 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than virgin polyester.
“If a brand wants to have a bigger impact on their emission reductions in particular, recycled raw materials are a good option. Because they can start small and scale it up,” said Siena Shepard, Climate Strategy Manager at Textile Exchange.
Like most sustainability trends, this one also has a catch: your recycled plastic swimsuit will most likely end up in landfills or back into the sea, as washing releases microplastics into the water system.
But the more immediate problem for fashion brands is the rising cost of recycled plastic.
The same plastic needed to make clothing — recycled polyethylene terephthalate plastic, or rPET — already has a voracious market: packaging made from recycled consumer goods.
And supply is tight, thanks in part to the world’s wretched recycling capacity.
According to the OECD, the global plastic recycling rate is estimated at 14-18 percent. In the US, only 30 percent of PET bottles are recycled, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.
“The increasing use of recycled polyester in recent years has made sourcing costs increasingly competitive compared to virgin polyester,” says Adidas, which has converted an impressive 60 percent of its polyester to recycled content.
Until 2019, the price of rPET used to make recycled polyester was €1,050 per tonne, or about €200 cheaper than virgin PET. Now the price has risen to €1,435. More expensive, often transparent, food-grade rPET for packaging consumables costs €1,800 per ton.
For fast fashion groups whose USP is to produce clothing as cheaply and quickly as possible, paying the extra pennies for recycled polyester is starting to add up, impacting the margin on a $5 T-shirt.
In a survey of growing UK groups, Asos, Boohoo, its subsidiary PrettyLittleThing, and Missguided, recycled plastics were found in just 3 percent of products, according to the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.
H&M, the world’s second largest fashion retailer and owner of the Cos, Arket, & Other Stories and Weekday brands, has pledged to use 100 percent recycled and sustainably sourced materials by 2030. recycled material.
“We aim to increase our use of recycled polyester every year,” said H&M. “While we always set ourselves ambitious goals, we do so based on the expertise within our own sustainability teams and our various partners, making our goals as ambitious as they are realistic.”
“The overarching reason is simply an accumulation of voluntary commitments, sustainability targets and legislation, and there isn’t enough supply in Europe to do that for everyone,” said Ben Brooks, chief of recycled plastics at S&P Global Platts.
New taxes on new PET are likely to further increase demand for rPET.
This year, the EU introduced a tax on new plastic packaging and the UK will levy packaging that does not contain 30 percent recycled content by April 2022.
Some fiber manufacturers and plastics giants are starting to acquire their own recycling capacity in response.
The world’s largest PET producer, Indorama Ventures, received a $300 million loan from the International Finance Corporation to help it expand its PET bottle recycling capacity to 750,000 tons per year by 2025.
Another major PET producer, DAK Americas, acquired an rPET plant in the US in 2019. Chemicals group Dow has partnered with recycling company Mura Technology to source rPET at a new facility in Teeside in the UK.
The industry’s forerunner, Unifi, also owns a PET bottle recycling facility in North Carolina, where it is located. “To increase the supply of this waste, we need consumers, businesses and governments to work together to increase recycling rates,” said Jay Hertwig, vice president of commercialization.
Even as fashion brands meet their recycled content targets and the world increases its recycling capacity, there is another long-term problem: recycled polyester itself is not mechanically recyclable. Like most new plastics, it will likely end up in the landfill.
The only way to achieve circular textile-to-textile recycling on a large scale is through chemical recycling, a process that breaks down plastic waste into chemicals or oils, which serve as raw materials for future plastics.
Petrochemical companies such as Shell, Dow and Indorama all invest in chemical recycling technology. Several start-ups, such as Worn Again, specialize in chemical recycling of textiles into textiles.
“In the longer term, chemical recycling will become the solution for plastics recycling, especially polyester clothing,” said Rob Stier, chief petrochemical analyst at S&P Global Platts.
However, “[these] years away from major commercial operations, they are likely to have a pretty bad carbon footprint and be expensive,” adds Stiers. “So yes, it will meet the demand, but at what cost?”
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