Recycling for Fashion: Should We Give Plastics a Second Chance?

Olivia Gecseg Monday, 22 July 2019


In response to the Plastic Free July campaign, we’ve been exploring the surprising role plastic plays in the fashion industry. We traced one of the significant contributions to the root of the plastic pollution crisis through the history of fabrics like polyester, nylon and spandex and the properties that catapulted their popularity, and we demonstrated ways for you to cut out single-use plastics from your packaging and implement more sustainable solutions.

Before we wave goodbye to single-use plastic forever (if only!), this week’s blog addresses the issue of existing plastic pollution, and we look at the ways designers are currently working plastic waste into their collections. This is just a short teaser ahead of next month’s upcoming Masterclass, which will be your comprehensive guide to circular design, including recycling and upcycling, provided by our lineup of incredible industry experts. 

Not yet a Professional Member? Join today to be alerted when our next Masterclass goes live and enjoy unlimited access to all existing Masterclass resources to support your ethical fashion business. 


Recycled plastics in fashion

There are a whole host of designers today already taking advantage of the technologies that allow everyday plastics to be recycled into fabrics. Made from PET, the same polymer used for plastic water bottles, recycled polyester is the most prevalent. Easy to clean, (mostly) recyclable themselves, it has all the desirable properties of the original synthetic fabric, but without the disadvantages of using non-renewable fossil fuels to produce it. 

Reportedly there is an awful 8 million metric tons of plastic sitting in our oceans, but instead of leaving it there to release toxic chemicals into the atmosphere and seas, recycling enables us to view this plastic wasteland like another raw material - just with fewer resources and damaging effects needed to transform it into fabric.

Many are questioning whether the use of recycled plastic fabrics is enough for fashion to clean up its act? The main accusations against large, fast fashion companies like H&M or Zara, are levelled at their greenwashing tactics. Instead of tackling the cause of fashion’s waste crisis, i.e. overproduction, overconsumption and cheap/poor quality garments, and disposal into landfill, these big brands, for now, seem to be using recycled fabrics to deflect from more awkward questions around their ethics and environmental impact. Another argument against recycled polyester fabrics says they still emit the same amount of environmentally harmful microfibres into water streams when washed. 

We won’t call it a solution, but the vast amounts of plastic waste that currently exists needs to be addressed in some way and there are some brilliant designers out there finding creative ways to do just that. If you’re thinking of taking the recycling or upcycling route for your fashion business, check out our top industry forerunners working towards circular solutions for plastic in fashion.

Recycled polyester from PET water bottles

Virgin polyester and single-use water bottles are made from the same polymer fibres (PET), which is why plastic bottles are so often used as the raw material for recycled polyester. PET is fully recyclable, although according to the British Plastics Foundation, only 60% of PET plastics in the household waste stream is currently collected for recycling.

For outdoor-wear and sportswear brands, who demand high-performance qualities from their materials, the key concern is that recycled materials cannot match virgin synthetic materials. One of the industry's forerunners, Patagonia has proven that recycled polyester made from plastic bottles have just the same qualities as their virgin counterparts. They work with REPREVE polyester, which claims to have recycled over 16 billion plastic bottles so far, for their performance clothing. 

Buttons from reclaimed ocean plastics

Haberdashery makes the perfect output for recycled plastics; its lightweight and durable qualities make it no different from its virgin counterpart.

We were lucky enough to interview Rob Ianelli from Oceanworks, who work with companies to find them supply chain partners that reclaim ocean plastics to recycle them into moulded end products.

“We really don’t need any new plastics entering the market, we have plenty to recycle.” - Rob Ianelli, CEO, Oceanworks

Their Oceansmade product lines apply recycled oceans plastics to everything from tote bags to sunglasses to hats.

Prada handbags – now in Econyl!

Championed by big-name luxury fashion brands, Econyl has taken the sustainable apparel market by storm. It's manufactured from regenerated nylon, sourced from reclaiming scraps from landfill and oceans. After a complex purification process, it starts its life as a recycled material much the same as virgin nylon and can be reused and recycled indefinitely.

Prada's Re-Nylon collection demonstrates there’s hope for luxury fashion brands, previously cautious to take the first steps to sustainable production methods, and will flag that quality and durability is not a concern for recycled materials.

Shoe soles from vehicle tyres

  “You can do wonderful, luxurious and decadent things with the materials that are around.” - Elvis and Kresse

Footwear is one of the most polluting subsections of the garment industry because of the high levels of synthetics and non-recyclable materials used in their manufacture.

A few companies have thought to take advantage of the durable rubber in vehicle tyres, but Indosole has been one of the most successful. They intercept tyres before they reach landfill, cutting them to create durable and flexible soles, topped with an organic material upper, usually made from banana leaves or organic canvas. 

Responding to high-end trends with upcycled PVC

When the PVC trend hit the runways last year, it struck a sour note with an increasingly sustainably-minded fashion audience. Many decried the promotion of such a resource-heavy and environmentally unfriendly material while Blue Planet II was highlighting the impact of ocean plastics.

Bag designers at Muskinn have instead turned to upcycling PVC to create a “Transparent” collection comprising waterproof and see-through bags and wallets, perfect for beach holidays. They also recently ran a campaign to collect used plastic bags and ran workshops teaching people how to create their own wallets out of this waste material.

Swimwear from fishing nets

Ghost nets are the fishing nets left behind by fishermen and contribute to some of the worst effects of ocean plastic pollution on marine wildlife. Thankfully the Olive Ridley Project has been established to collect and remove ghost nets (and other polluting materials) from oceans. They are partnering with artists and designers to find renewed life for the plastic nets, mainly with local artisans who apply them in embroidery designs. Sustainable swimwear brand, Ocean Positive, sources ghost nets through Olive Ridley and transforms them into Econyl.

Olive Ridley is seeking collaborators to work with, so get in touch, if you fancy an upcycling challenge!