Indulgent yet responsible fabrics

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!

Only recycle

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”.

recycl poly 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.[1]
  • 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 [2] 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


[1]“Reduce, re-use,re-dye?”,  Phil Patterson, Ecotextile News, August/September 2008

[2] “Taking Landfill out of the Loop”, Sarah Scott, Azure, 2006

17 thoughts on “Is recycled polyester fabric RECYCLABLE?

  1. india flint says:

    i read somewhere that in order to produce so-called recycled polar fleece – the bottle maker simply sends truckloads of unused bottles to be ‘recycled’ to the textile manufacturer. rumour has it this is in CHina.
    if you can substantiate this please drop me a line….

  2. oecotextiles says:

    Hi India: I just know what I’ve read – and I read in The Textile Dyer (“Concern over Recycled Polyester” in the May 13, 2008 issue), that the demand for used bottles, from which recycled polyester fibre is made, is now outstripping supply in some areas. So certain cynical suppliers are now buying NEW, unused bottles directly from bottle producing companies to make polyester textile fibre that can be called “recycled”. Regarding taking place in China: I don’t know. But I do know that almost all recycling facilities are in Asia.

    I also know that the recycled polyester fabric we buy is made from PET (polyethlyene terephthalate). Most of the world’s production of PET goes to making fabric – 60% worth – and about 30% goes to make bottles. If the demand for fabric made from recycled PET forces the price of bottles up, at some price point for used bottles it would seem a logical step for unscrupulous bottle manufacturers to sell their virgin bottles as used – and thereby save themselves the cost of collecting, sorting and cleaning the used bottles. Whatever collusion there might be between the fiber manufacturers and bottle manufacturers can only be guessed.

  3. Rosie says:

    thank you so much for this info. I have tailor shop where people appreciate the protection given their clothing with the plastic bags (like at the drycleaners) but I no longer want to use them…I’m thinking about hiring some seamstresses..(local) to whip up bags made from recycled fabric for customers to buy and keep reusing for their altered clothing. But now what fabric is truely the best to use? I really want a usa made fabric but maybe it doesn’t exist.

    1. oecotextiles says:

      Hi Rosie: We think it’s a great idea to use re-useable bags of any kind – and the idea of substituting re-useable bags for dry cleaning is terrific! The benefits are tremendous and I think dry cleaning bags may be the next “returnable” frontier. Not only can they be used to/from the dry clearners, but they can be used in your closet to store clothes, because the woven fabric breathes. As to what fabric is the best to use: we’d vote for any GOTS certified fabric (and please make sure the GOTS certification is for the final fabric, not for any intermediate process). I don’t think there are yet any mills in the U.S. that qualify for GOTS certification, but from life cycle analyses done by various companies, the energy used for transportation is a very small percentage of embodied energy in most fabric products because the resources used to produce the fabrics have such high embodied energy costs. We wrote a series of blog posts on the embodied energy of fabrics last spring, such as the one on 6.29.09, “Elephants Among Us”, if you want to find out what the issues are.

    2. Jon Samsu says:

      hey! i know you mention buying USA made fabric… i had the same problem and havent found a good one. Sooo I found a company called lafayette (www.lafayette.com). They are from Colombia (The Americas jaja, as close to home as posible. I did a little research, they are actually pretty solid. All theyre employees are paid well, the reuse 80% of the water used in the manufacturing process, and they have pretty amazing fabrics! And at least its not made in china!

      1. oecotextiles says:

        Hi Jon: Although I think paying employees well is really important, as is water reuse, I’m equally adamant about the chemicals used in the process – so the fabrics we live with are safe. Not to mention the 20% of water they don’t reuse which is therefore polluting our ecosystem. And I’m afraid I didn’t see any indication of that in the Lafayette web site. Have you discussed that aspect with them?

  4. Jocky Perara says:

    Beware Marketing Gimmick of Certifying Agencies In China, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.

    Please note in under-developed countries like Asia & Africa all certifying agencies of EU & USA are offering non authentic, non accredited, private standards to supplier for following facilities

    1) Fair Trade standards
    2) Social compliance standards
    3) Recycle standards

    Due to above, suppliers are misleading to consumers for genuinety of their products and certifying agencies are minting money and remaining safe from legal proceedings and laws.

    This private standards do not have accreditation, authentication for quality and genuinety of any products.

    Please bring the awarness in consumer and stop this marketing gimmick from paying premium on certified products.

    1. oecotextiles says:

      Thanks Jocky, for this information. Since you said all certifying agencies of EU and USA offer these standards, do you mean that a certifying agency, such as Control Union, the Soil Association or the Organic Trade Association in the U.S., are offering them? And if we run into one of these private standards, what certification will we see?

  5. kristin says:

    What do you know about Patagonia’s polyester recycling program?

    1. oecotextiles says:

      I know that Patagonia has been investigating this for years. Their mission (to build the best products and to cause no unnecessary harm) is one I think we can all applaud. They have a transparent supply system, and have published their findings on the internet. You can follow their progress on the Footprint Chronicles, which allows you to see the impact a number of their products have, “from design through delivery”. I personally think Patagonia is trying to do the best it can while still surviving, an important concept in being able to achieve any success! As for the recycling program specifically, Patagonia is one of the very few companies which have partnered with Teijin, which is (I believe) the only company today which actually chemically depolymerizes the plastics and then reconfigures them into new products with equal value.

  6. Dan Bernard says:


    Interesting talk. We first got into marketing recycled-content (PET) apparel in the early 90’s when Hoechst Celanese and Coke were teaming up to do it chemically and contacted us. Since then, after finding the market really didn’t want a 100% poly shirt, the blend of recycled cotton from manufacturing waste (clippings that are predyed and blended in a waterless system to colormatch) and recycled PET has proven to be much more popular. Unifi in the U.S. offers recycled poly…though I believe it’s mechanically recycled vs. chemically.

    I think Patagonia has an active “take it back to be recycled” program: their “Common Threads” program is pretty cool – http://www.patagonia.com/us/patagonia.go?assetid=1956



  7. Maria says:

    I am looking for a fabric that I can claim is made from recycled materials and is also recylable to make children’s school bags. Olefin is cheap and readily available in the US and offers strength while being easily crafted. I believe many of us now take Olefin bags to pack our groceries at the supermarket. What do you know of this fabric and do you have any other suggestions? Also, does anyone make recycled velcro yet? Thank you! Maria

    1. oecotextiles says:

      Hi Maria: I don’t know much about olefins. The Olefin you’re seeing is, I believe, a form of polyolefins, which are polyethylene (PE) or polypropylene (PP). According to the Greenpeace pyramid of plastics, these are some of the better polymer choices because they don’t have to use plasticizers. Greenpeace says :
      “In comparison with PVC, PE and PP use fewer problematic additives, have reduced leaching potential in landfills, reduced potential for dioxin formation during burning (provided that brominated/chlorinated flame retardants are not used), and reduced technical problems and costs during recycling.” But remember this is in comparison to PVC, the poison plastic. Do you have to use a plastic for your application? Can you not find a natural fiber that is strong and durable enough for your use?

    2. oecotextiles says:

      And I forgot to mention that I do not know of a source for velcro made of recycled plastic.

  8. cecile says:

    Hello, this is a very interesting thread, exactly the information i was looking for.
    I am a fashion designer in France , and i am interested by sustainable fabrics and process. And i always believed that recycled polyester shouldn’t be called eco-friendly. Also i can confirm you that manufacturers even in Europe have to buy unused plastic bottles to make the recycled polyester yarn because they don’t find enough sources.

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