Plastic bottles find their way into everything. Parks, rivers, oceans and… outdoor gear?
It seems like recycling plastic bottles into clothing and gear is the latest fashion, but is it really that sustainable? We wanted to find out.
We hate seeing plastic bottles in the wild at We Are Explorers. Every piece of plastic humankind has ever made is still somewhere on the planet (unless burned).
A cursory google will tell you 80% of bottles end up in landfill and they last around 450 years in the water. Bottles and bottle caps rank third and fourth in the list of most collected rubbish in the Ocean Conservancy’s annual beach cleanups from more than 100 countries, and don’t get me started on sea turtles and fish.
PET bottles or polyethylene terephthalate is the culprit. However, perhaps the one place where we’re happy to see more plastic bottles is in apparel. At least that seems like the best solution for now.
How Do Bottles Turn into Yarn?
But, how the heck does it happen? You’ve probably noticed the claim that a jacket or a pair of boardshorts has a certain amount of water bottles in it.
It takes around five plastic water bottles to make enough fabric for one t-shirt.
We’ve noted it in various reviews in the past, like this waterproof jacket by Australian brand Team Timbuktu that we reviewed which is made from 100% recycled plastic bottles – around 31 bottles in every jacket. Or this Project Blank Eco Ultimate 3/2mm steamer wetsuit we just reviewed which contains a whopping 45 recycled bottles.
Basically, water bottles are collected, washed and chopped into teeny, tiny pieces called ‘flake’. Simple enough so far, but that step in itself is made up of 25 smaller steps. Next, that flake gets turned into this stuff called ‘chip’ (hungry yet?) and that chip is melted and extruded into a polyester fibre. The fibre or yarn then gets turned into a fabric and voila.
One of the foremost companies doing this is Repreve and they’ve recycled more than 26 billion plastic bottles. However, this is still a drop in the ocean compared to the half a trillion bottles expected to be used and largely disposed of in this year alone.
What Brands Are Doing It?
What brands aren’t doing it might be a better question. Pick an outdoor brand and there’s probably a recycled bottle in at least one product somewhere.
Last year The North Face launched their ‘Bottle Source’ collection that took 72,000 kilograms of bottles directly out of Yosemite, Grand Teton and Great Smoky Mountain National Parks and put them into a range of tee’s. This was perhaps more a marketing stunt than cleanup effort, but it helped to highlight the issue in a big way.
More materially – pun intended – in TNF’s current range there’s items like The North Face Thermoball ECO Jacket that reuse up to 25 plastic bottles and also still provide the equivalent warmth of 600 fill goose down insulation. Proving that recycling plastic doesn’t have to come at the cost of performance.
However, the OG plastic bottle recycler is Patagonia. It should come as no surprise that Patagonia has been making recycled polyester from plastic soda bottles since 1993, ‘the first outdoor clothing manufacturer to transform trash into fleece.’
In fact, The first synchilla fleeces they made had a light greenish tinge to them because at the time, clear plastic bottles and the green plastic sprite bottles weren’t separated out in the recycling process.
Today, they combine bottles with manufacturing waste and worn-out garments (including their own) into polyester fibers to produce everything from Capilene® baselayers, shell jackets, board shorts and fleece. Their ‘better sweater’ range has alone recycled a total of 70 million plastic bottles, their puffer jackets have recycled 12 million bottles and their duffels are made with more recycled bottles than you could probably stuff in them.
Other big name brands on the recycled bottle bandwagon include Kathmandu, Quiksilver, O’Neill, Volcom, Teva and many more. Even Adidas and Nike are doing it with Nike’s latest FlyKnit shoes containing 6 plastic bottles in each pair.
Salomon’s first shoe using recycled materials (the Crossamphibian Swift 2… heck of a name) includes the equivalent of 1.75 plastic bottles, two ears of corn and discarded coffee grounds. And I don’t blame you for re-reading that last sentence.
They’re also putting recycled PET in Nordic skis and have a concept shoe that can be recycled to make their thermoplastic ski boot shells.
Too Good To Be True?
So, what’s the catch? Well, firstly I don’t think they’re real ‘catches’, more like ‘one-hand-one-bounce’ sort of sticking points, but there are a few question marks.
Firstly, some will point to the issue of microplastic pollution. Patagonia aren’t strangers to this concern and have said, ‘We know a single synthetic garment can shed thousands of synthetic microfibres in a single wash.’ So much so, they even sell washing machine filters in an effort to reduce this.
There’s also some commentary surrounding the fact that once a bottle is taken out of the plastic recycling loop and put towards a garment, it’s much harder to recycle again in future. However, that’s assuming the bottle will get recycled more than once or twice in its lifetime which might be wishful to begin with.
So, while less polyester is always better, if it’s going to be used, it may as well come for a recycled material and get two birds with the one stone (or bottle).
All in all, when compared to what is called ‘virgin polyester’, 1kg of the recycled bottle product can result in: 62% less energy used, 99% less water used, up to 35% less waste created and over 20% less CO2 emitted. So, it’s not just improving the plastic problem!
Want to read more about plastic? Just last week we published a piece on Ten Years Without Plastic or if that seems a little ambitious for now, how about the question of Could You Hike Without Single Use Plastic?