Is it true, as one of the leading fabric distributors says of its “green” fabrics made of recycled polyester, that after “years of enjoyable use, these fabrics are recyclable?” Does buying that fabric really help reduce our dependence on a non renewable resource and lessen the burden that plastic is inflicting on our environment?
I’d like to show you how this is a misleading statement. It’s a bit complicated, but stick with me because the industry is depending on your confusion. If you know what they’re really foisting on us, you might want to demand a better, cleaner, altogether different product!
But first I have to back up and point out that “recyclable” is one of those amorphous words that have no accepted definition. We can “recycle” our fabrics by repurposing them, donating them, use them for quilting or in other ways…but somehow I think they really meant for us to believe that the plastic yarns could be recycled into new and equally beautiful new fabrics: the ultimate “infinite closed loop”.
So, the first thing you must understand in order to grasp why this is a disingenuous statement is that there are two ways plastic can be recycled: Mechanically and chemically.
Mechanical recycling is the kind that almost all recycling facilities use today. The first step in the process is to collect the plastics and then separate all the different types of plastic (“feedstock”) to avoid contamination – different plastics have different melting points and other characteristics; if they were thrown into the pot together the result would be an unuseable mess. (Remember this fact: the recycling of plastics must always be done with like resins – this will come up later in textiles.) So after separation, each type is melted down and then re-formed into small “chips” or “pellets”. These chips are what a widget manufacturer buys from the recycling facility to make its product – or what a yarn manufacturer buys to make the yarns to weave into cloth.
Common misconception about recycling: you might think that if you throw your used drink bottle into the recycling container that it will be recycled into another new drink container. Nope. The melted resin contains contaminants and would not meet food grade requirements, so it is instead destined to go into a secondary product, such as yarn for the fabric we started talking about at the beginning of this blog. A better name for the “recycling container” would be “collection container”.
From Help me! – the earth by Memo
A fabric made of “recycled material” has a certain percentage of polyester which comes from these chips that the recycling facility has manufactured. Using these chips has several issues which are exclusive to the textile industry:
- The base color of the recycled polyester chips vary from white to creamy yellow, making color consistency difficult to achieve, particularly for the pale shades. Some dyers find it hard to get a white, so they’re using chlorine-based bleaches to whiten the base.
- Inconsistency of dye uptake makes it difficult to get good batch-to-batch color consistency and this can lead to high levels of re-dyeing, another very high energy process. Re-dyeing contributes to high levels of water, energy and chemical use.
- Unsubstantiated reports claim that some recycled yarns take almost 30% more dye to achieve the same depth of shade as equivalent virgin polyesters.
- Another consideration is the introduction of PVC into the polymer from bottle labels and wrappers.
- Many yarns made from recycled polyester are used in forgiving constructions such as polar fleece, where the construction of the fabric hides slight yarn variations. For fabrics such as satins, there are concerns over streaks and stripes.
Most of the plastics in use today can be recycled but, because mechanical recycling produces a less stable polymer, the products which can be made from this recycled plastic are of “less value” than the original. The products made from the “chips” must be a bit forgiving, such as carpet, plastic lumber, roadside curbs, truck cargo liners, waste receptacles (you get the idea). William McDonough calls this “downcycling”. No matter how many smiling people you see throwing their bottles into a recycling container and “preventing the plastic from entering our waste stream” as the media likes to put it – the reality is that the recycling can only be done mechanically a few times before the polymers break down and the plastic is no longer useful or useable – every time plastic is melted down, its molecular composition changes, its quality degrades, and the range of its usefulness shrinks. So after going from a virgin PET bottle, to carpet fibers, to plastic lumber, to a speed bump – that’s when it enters our waste stream. So recycling plastic doesn’t prevent this occurrence – it just postpones it. Read more about “the seduction of plastic” here.
To add insult to injury, if you had bought the fabric mentioned above and hoped the fabric would be recyclable as claimed: probably not gonna happen, because remember how the recycling facility had to separate bottles to make sure each resin was melted with similar types? Think of the fabric as similar to bottles with different plastic resins: many fabrics are woven of different types of plastic (60% polyester, 40% nylon for example), or there is a chemical backing of some sort on the fabric. These different chemicals, with different molecular weights, renders the fabric non-recyclable. Period.
And even if the fabric we’re talking about is 100% polyester with NO chemical backings or finishes, there is a problem with recycling in the system itself. Although bottles, tins and newspapers are now routinely collected for recycling, furniture and carpets still usually end up in landfill or incinerators, even if they have been designed to be recycled  because the fabric must be separated from other components if it’s part of an upholstered piece of furniture, for example.
Chemical recycling is the alternative technology and it does exist. During chemical recycling, the materials are chemically dissolved into their precursor chemicals. Polyester, for example, would be broken down into DMT (dimethyl terephthalate) and EG (ethylene glycol). These chemicals are then purified and used to make new polyester fiber. But the reality is that this is difficult and expensive to do. Patagonia has made using recycled plastics a priority and gives a good overview of the process with interesting comments about the unique problems they’re encountering; read about it here.
Currently, fabrics identified as being “recyclable” really are not – because the technology to recycle the fibers is either too expensive (chemical) or doesn’t exist (mechanical) and the infrastructure to collect the fabric is not in place. Few manufacturers, such as Designtex (with their line of EL fabrics designed to be used without backings) and Victor Innovatex (who has pioneered EcoIntelligent™ polyester made without antimony), have taken the time, effort and money needed to accelerate the adoption of sustainable practices in the industry so we can one day have synthetic fabrics that are not only recycled, but recyclable.
So when you buy a fabric made of recycled polyester, remember it’s at the end of its useful life as a plastic – and you are contributing to our dependence on non renewable resources and to the overwhelming burden of non-degradeable plastic in our environment.
And lest you forget – or choose to ignore – what that kind of degradation entails, Chris Jordan, a photographer based in Seattle, has documented it for us. In a series of photographs entitled “Message from the Gyre”, he has documented what pieces of plastic are doing to albatross chicks on Midway Island. In the interest of a faithful representation of their plight, not a single piece of plastic in any of the pictures was moved, placed or arranged in any way. The images depict the actual stomach contents of baby birds in one of the world’s most remote marine sanctuaries, more than 2000 miles from the nearest continent. See all the images and more of Chris Jordan’s work on his web site, www.chrisjordan.com
“Reduce, re-use,re-dye?”, Phil Patterson, Ecotextile News, August/September 2008
 “Taking Landfill out of the Loop”, Sarah Scott, Azure, 2006