The Whole Truth of Upcycled Apparel and Gear

REPREVE, the upcycled polyester fabric, and the apparel and gear brands that are using it could put a dent in the world’s voracious plastic consumption. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, and only a small part of the story. 

By Kassondra Cloos February 7, 2018

In the United States alone, we recycle just over a third of the total waste we generate. When it comes to plastics, that number drops to 31.4 percent of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles and jars, and 29.5 percent of high-density polyethylene (HPDE) natural or translucent white plastic bottles, according to a 2014 fact sheet from the EPA—the most recent year for which data is available. We dumped another 24.5 million tons of plastic waste into landfills.

Tweetable: “It is estimated that by 2050 the ocean will contain
more plastic by weight than fish.” (Forbes, 2017).

And we’re just one country. Globally, the number of plastic drinking bottles sold annually is estimated at 480 billion, according to the Guardian, and it’s expected to reach 583 billion by 2021. That’s more than a million bottles bought every minute of every day, just for water, soda and juice. It doesn’t include things like soap, motor oil, or food products like ketchup and mustard. If recycled, those discarded bottles could come back to life as jackets, socks, backpacks and other beloved outdoor apparel and equipment.

Unifi is one of several textile companies that turns recycled clear plastic drinking bottles and their white lids into upcycled polyester that then goes into apparel from brands across the outdoor industry and beyond. But often, when oil prices are low, it’s cheaper to make virgin plastics and polyester than it is to buy and manufacture recycled materials. The cost of buying bottles from recycling plants stays constant even as the price of oil fluctuates daily, says Jimmy Barnhardt, brand sales manager for Unifi, makers of REPREVE recycled polyester. Despite those price shifts, though, recycled polyester seems to be trending upward.

REPREVE has been growing exponentially as more apparel brands move to incorporate recycled polyester in spite of any additional costs, Barnhardt says, and there’s no sign of that growth slowing. In 2016, Unifi invested $28 million to process plastic bottles in-house rather than using a third-party facility. This also allows Unifi to sell recycled plastic for use in other industries, such as in the creation of food safe containers and car parts. Between 2008, when the REPREVE brand was created, and 2017, Unifi had upcycled 10 billion bottles into fabric for apparel and gear brands like Polartec, Patagonia, Cotopaxi, prAna, Teva, The North Face, BUFF, and Canada Goose, plus “fast fashion” companies like H&M. Unifi hopes to recycle 10 billion more bottles by 2020 and a total of 30 billion by 2022.

The three-step process of turning used plastic bottles into plastic fibers for use in new products.

The process is proprietary but involves three main straightforward steps:

1. First, bottles are cleaned and shredded into chips.

2. Second, they’re melted into round pellets.

3. Those pellets are then melted through a device that looks like a showerhead, which forms it into yarn that can be woven.

 

While consumers are clearly willing to pay slightly higher prices for recycled fabrics and have pushed for organic food and greener household goods, they’re not the primary force driving innovation in sustainable apparel—it’s actually the brands themselves, according to Elissa Foster, senior manager of product responsibility for Patagonia. Barnhardt agrees that the best way to motivate people to recycle is for the businesses they patronize to encourage it.

To that end, Patagonia has worked hard to tell the stories behind its sustainable goods, Foster says. But while the brand’s customers are informed and environmentally friendly, “I think most of the progress we’ve made in incorporating recycled fibers is because as a company, we’re motivated,” Foster says. “I think it’s more driven by companies than consumer demand.”

In recent years, Patagonia has debuted products made from recycled wool, down, nylon, polyester, cashmere, and cotton, and launched a neoprene-free wetsuit made from organic rubber. Next year, BUFF will start replacing the fabric it uses for its original multi-functional headwear with 100 percent recycled polyester from REPREVE.

“We want to do more. We recognize that we can be better and that’s our intent, overall, as a brand,” says Kevin Walker, BUFF’s marketing manager. “Our intent is to use a certified, traceable product that we are [keeping out of] landfills while also reducing our footprint and impact.”

Using recycled polyester isn’t the ultimate solution to making our industry green. Recycled or not, polyesters are at the center of the microfiber shedding issue, and we still have more questions than answers about what causes it and how to avoid it, says Beth Jensen, senior director of sustainable innovation for Outdoor Industry Association. And once those microfibers are in the ocean, there’s no turning back.

Foster says she hasn’t heard many, if any, conversations around how to get these microfibers out. Preventing them from entering the ocean at all is currently the only known solution, and brands are looking at all stages of the manufacturing, washing, and water filtration processes to figure out where that solution might lie.

“Recycled polyester is definitely better than virgin polyester,” Jensen says, but fixing the microfiber problem is not as simple as converting to recycled material – or even to materials made of natural fibers, as these also shed and are often treated with chemical coatings or blended with synthetic fibers. The outdoor industry isn’t the biggest contributor to microfiber shedding, but it can lead by example as it works to find solutions, Jensen says. She encourages brands to join OIA’s Sustainability Working Group to be part of the conversation and the concrete actions to improve our supply chains.

“We can’t ignore how we’re impacting the places we play,” Jensen says.

 

(Header image courtesy of Matthew Youngquest/Myquest Photography)

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