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Is Clothing Made of Recycled Plastic Truly a Good Move, or Just More Greenwashing?

The Situation

In recent years, brands such as H&M and Primark have advertised their clothing ranges made from recycled bottles. Brands such as these have been slated for their unethical processes and lack of commitment to the environment in the past, so these new initiatives that promote clothing made from plastic appear to be a move towards more sustainable fashion. But is it truly as good as it sounds?

Polyester is a synthetic material, made from plastics, and so marketing clothing made from bottles appears to be a great environmental move. Many people are aware of the issues we have with fast fashion and plastic pollution, so this looks like a solution; we’re capitalising on people who enjoy buying new clothing, by switching them over to a more sustainable alternative that makes use of a product we know has a negative impact on the environment. In theory, this removes the need to make more plastic materials and encourages us to make use of the plastics we’ve already created.

The Problems

Apart from the effect on climate, one issue with materials made from plastic, whether virgin or recycled, is the shedding that happens when they are washed.

Washing using a machine has its own issues such as electricity usage, and the toxic nature of many detergents, so keep an eye out for our post coming up soon about how to adopt a more eco-friendly washing strategy.

Assuming you are washing clothes via a machine though, tiny plastic microfibres enter our water system with every wash, flowing from our washing machines into bodies of water around the world. Once in the water, they are consumed by aquatic life, which can cause damage to the creatures in the sea, but can also end up on our plate when we consume these animals. This isn’t limited to garments made from recycled fibres, but if brands are encouraging the purchase of synthetic garments, there must be better awareness of the issues linked to synthetic fibres.

Secondly, the creation of garments made from recycled bottles actually has the potential to be more harmful than if we just left the plastic bottles alone. By taking these bottles out of the system they’re in, it speeds up their journey to landfill. Currently, plastic bottles are part of a looped system – they can be reused around 10 times when recycled correctly. However, once those bottles are turned into fibres, they can’t be recycled anymore and once discarded, landfill is the most likely final destination of the garment.

The Solutions

The good news is, it’s not all bad. Whilst garments made from recycled fibres may not be the answer, and are not the positive solution they’re being promoted as, they are making consumers more aware of the impact that fashion can have on the environment. Sumana at the Scarab Trust has written a great article on how to make your wardrobe more sustainable, which you can find here.

Of course, the most sustainable garment is the one you already own: ideally buying it second hand in the first place, making sure that you wear it multiple times, taking care of it so it lasts, and even donating or selling it when you’re done with it so that someone else can make use of it. This is the best journey a garment can go on.

Additionally, if you are washing clothes made from synthetic fibres, have a look at whether you can install a microplastics filter. Adding one to your washing machine is a great way to reduce the amount of microfibres ending up in our waterways – the filters catch up to 90% of fibres in every wash, and in Australia and California, conversations are happening at a governmental level about making these filters compulsory on new washing machines. Perhaps that’s the next move for the UK.


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Questionable fashion: why are clothes polluting oceans?


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