Image credit: Getty images
Recycled plastic is in fashion right now, whether it’s eco-trainers or ready-to-wear pieces by luxury brands. Prada has committed to using only recycled nylon by 2021; Stella McCartney has set a goal of using just recycled nylon by 2020 and recycled polyester by 2025; and Marni and Preen both used recycled plastic bottles in their spring/summer 2020 collections. On the high street, Zara’s parent company Inditex says it will use 100 per cent recycled polyester by 2025; H&M has committed to increasing its use of recycled polyester by 25 per cent by 2020; and Everlane recently launched its ReNew line made entirely of recycled bottles, with an aim to eliminate all virgin plastic from its supply chain by 2021.
The environmental organisation, Parley for the Oceans, developed its recycled Ocean Plastic® – used by the likes of Adidas and Stella McCartney – in 2012 as an alternative to virgin plastic, and to raise awareness of the crisis. “There should be no reason to make more [virgin] plastic,” founder Cyrill Gutsch tells Vogue. “We said, if we turn marine waste into a premium, luxury material and call it Ocean Plastic®, people [will] pay more for that and we can actually afford to clean up the oceans.”
US footwear brand Rothy’s – whose fans include Meghan Markle – has built its name by turning plastic bottles into threads, used to knit its signature shoes. “Using recycled plastic is a no-brainer in my opinion,” co-founder Roth Martin says. “We’re proud to say that we have, at this point, used more than 40 million plastic water bottles that would have been destined for landfill.”
Image credit: Parley Ocean Plastic & Adidas
Turning plastic into new products
Using recycled plastic is not without its challenges though. “Unfortunately, [making the yarn] requires a fairly high grade of recycled PET [polyethylene terephthalate], so not all plastics are suitable,” Martin explains. “That’s where the technology is constantly improving.” Ensuring that recycled plastic is sourced in an ethical way is also crucial. “If you use materials that have been sourced by kids or people that are not being paid properly, that’s not okay,” Gutsch comments. “We can’t exploit humans and then pretend on the other side that we care for the environment.”
The carbon emissions involved in the recycling process is another environmental factor to consider. Parley for the Oceans partners with transport vessels on return trips in a bid to reduce its footprint, as well as offsetting its emissions. “You don’t want to create more emissions, but on the other hand, plastic that ends up in landfill is extremely bad for the environment,” Gutsch comments.
Image credit: Rothy’s
Re-recycling the plastic
One major concern over using recycled plastics to create new products is what happens at the end of its life. Rothy’s aims to make products that will last as long as possible, but says its shoes can be recycled again.“ The textile can always be recycled into lower grade fibres,” Martin says. “[Our shoes] don’t need to go into a landfill, and that’s our responsibility to keep them out of landfills.”
But in reality, only nine per cent of the plastic ever made has been recycled, according to a 2017 study. That’s a huge concern, says Mother of Pearl creative director Amy Powney, who is sceptical about the rising trend of using recycled polyester in fashion. “If we don’t have an infrastructure for recycling it in the correct way, then it ends up in landfill, whether it’s virgin or recycled,” she says.
Our ability to recycle plastic affects where it’s possible to “close the loop”, ie, to reuse plastic multiple times. That’s the aim of Adidas’s Futurecraft Loop trainers, which are initially made out of virgin plastic, but are designed to be recycled over and over again. “Innovation is now being done,” Gutsch explains. “Tests [show] we can bring every material we find back to a virgin plastic quality. It’s possible, but it’s not yet there in scale.”
Image credit: Rothy’s
Is recycled plastic just a greenwashing marketing tool?
For some brands, using recycled polyester – which can be obtained cheaply – is an easy way to up their green credentials, at a time when consumer concern about sustainability is rising. “It’s ticking boxes, rather than actually fixing root-cause problems,” says Powney, who worries that the prevalence of recycled polyester gives brands an excuse to sell more product. “Some [brands] are using recycled polyesters and are trying really hard within their businesses to do things better; some are using it as a greenwashing marketing tool.”
As well as using recycled plastics, true commitment to sustainable policies is key. “We don’t want people running around making product from Ocean Plastic®, if they don’t as a company commit to long-term change,” Gutsch adds.
Image credit: Rothy’s
Ending our reliance on plastics
By preventing plastic from going to landfills or the oceans, brands like Rothy’s are clearly having a positive impact. Martin argues there’s no excuse to continue using virgin plastic. “I think using post-consumer waste is the cost of entry now,” he says. “If you are designing a new product and you’re not thinking about that, you are failing already – no matter how great your product is.”
However, using recycled plastic across the industry does not solve the fundamental issues with the material itself. Even with clothes made out of recycled polyester, microplastics shedded when they’re washed remain a big issue. “Whether it’s virgin or recycled you’ve still got tiny little particles of plastic coming out your washing machine, and ending up in all of our water supplies,” Powney says.
Gutsch admits the end goal is to leave plastic behind altogether, whether recycled or not. “Plastic is a design failure; we have to develop new materials,” he says. “Until then, what’s the alternative? Recycling is the fix that we have now; it’s the band-aid.”