What Fashion Can Learn From Plastic Recycling

Micheal Johnson

By Aileen Lee

Every time I toss a plastic water bottle into the recycling bin I wonder: Could it be this easy for clothing?

While plastics have long-established design, incentives, and collection structures, the clothing industry remains behind—plastic water bottles are recycled at 2x the rate of clothing. What led to such a stark difference? And what could fashion learn from plastics?

What Does Clothing Have to Do with Bottles Anyways?

To a chemical engineer, bottles and articles of clothing are actually quite similar. Plastic water bottles are petroleum-based materials called polyethylene terephthalate or “PET.” More than half of our clothing is also made from fossil-fuel based materials called polyester.

Clothing and plastics are also related from the perspective of the Department of Sanitation. An average consumer throws away 81 pounds of clothing every year and 150 water bottles in that same time. The textile recycling rate is estimated at 13{5e37bb13eee9fcae577c356a6edbd948fa817adb745f8ff03ff00bd2962a045d}, while the plastic water bottle recycling rate is more than double at 29{5e37bb13eee9fcae577c356a6edbd948fa817adb745f8ff03ff00bd2962a045d}.

It is well-established by now that one of the most pressing issues for younger generations is climate change. There are more than enough compelling reasons to improve recycling rates. Recycled materials are better for the environment in both fashion and plastics. Recycled polyester reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 25-70{5e37bb13eee9fcae577c356a6edbd948fa817adb745f8ff03ff00bd2962a045d} compared to virgin polyester. Unsurprisingly, the plastic industry sees a similar rate of 75{5e37bb13eee9fcae577c356a6edbd948fa817adb745f8ff03ff00bd2962a045d} reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to virgin PET.

Design: It Starts from the Source

Single-use water bottles are the highest-value plastic to recyclers because they are made of clear 100{5e37bb13eee9fcae577c356a6edbd948fa817adb745f8ff03ff00bd2962a045d} PET. However, clothing is often composed of blended materials such as polyester-cotton or polyester-spandex. Blends are more difficult to recycle because the materials can not be easily separated.

Recycled materials are better for the environment in both fashion and plastics.

Water bottle caps can be recycled, but only if they are also plastic. Similarly, designers should also be aware of the “trimmings” they select such as buttons, lace, linings, zippers, and threads. For example, “Recycling a 100{5e37bb13eee9fcae577c356a6edbd948fa817adb745f8ff03ff00bd2962a045d} cotton t-shirt is significantly better if it also has 100{5e37bb13eee9fcae577c356a6edbd948fa817adb745f8ff03ff00bd2962a045d} cotton thread,” says Constanza Gomez, a pioneer in sorting technology and founder of Sortile.

Collection: Getting it Back

Plastic recycling is ultimately more convenient. Curbside recycling programs mean you can toss your recycling in a separate bin in your home or at work. Nothing like this exists for clothing, and donating your clothing is often a tedious process of dragging heavy bags to Goodwill once a year.

It may not make sense to have curbside recycling for clothing due to its lower frequency, but fashion has also started implementing novel approaches. ForDays has a takeback bag for customers to send in used clothing. While they charge $20 upfront for the bag, the $20 is returned in the form of site credit. Everywhere Apparel adds a QR code to the neck label of all their garments that allows customers to easily request a return label for recycling their garment.

The other major part of plastic recycling is the return deposit system. In New York, five cents is added to every bottle purchased which is returned if the bottle is recycled. This small financial reward is enough to incentivize troves of people to collect and recycle plastic water bottles. Germany carries the leading benchmark, adding 30 cents to each bottle and encouraging a 98{5e37bb13eee9fcae577c356a6edbd948fa817adb745f8ff03ff00bd2962a045d} return rate.

Putting a nationwide deposit system in place in the U.S. will require government action; fashion companies, however, can act now. Thousandfell, for example, adds a $20 deposit to their recyclable sneakers, encouraging customers to trade in their sneakers.

Sorting and Processing: Machines and Myths

After design and collection, comes the sorting and processing. For plastics, reverse vending machines such as Tomra and Bin-e automatically sort glass, paper, plastic, and metal. Innovators such as Sortile are working with donation centers to bring similar levels of automated sorting to fashion.

One of the myths in fashion is that “recycling” means old clothing becomes new clothing. In reality, less than 1{5e37bb13eee9fcae577c356a6edbd948fa817adb745f8ff03ff00bd2962a045d} of clothing becomes new clothing. Today, most clothing is exported to third-world countries or “downcycled” into rags. Additionally, current technology only allows for mechanical recycling of 100{5e37bb13eee9fcae577c356a6edbd948fa817adb745f8ff03ff00bd2962a045d} cotton, wool or polyester, returning to the importance of designing single-source garments.

One of the myths in fashion is that “recycling” means old clothing becomes new clothing.

What You Can Do

While there are large-scale issues such as legislative action and textile recycling technology that are not controllable by individuals, you can start making changes that could set up the system for success in the future by:

  • Choosing single-sourced garments such as 100{5e37bb13eee9fcae577c356a6edbd948fa817adb745f8ff03ff00bd2962a045d} organic cotton
  • Seeking brands offering circularity programs such as take-back programs and recycling deposits
  • Reducing waste by attending clothing swaps or extending clothing life by mending them
  • Recycling clothing through takeback bags or collection bins

Aileen Lee (’23) is a Columbia Business School MBA candidate and the founder of Infinite Goods. Infinite Goods is an e-commerce platform that promotes sustainable fashion designers who use single-source materials and have circularity programs in place. Her background includes both working at a recycled apparel startup, Everywhere Apparel, and consulting at BCG for retail and fashion companies.

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