In this digital age, as consumers we are highly susceptible to accepting information as it's being represented, information that is often not entirely truthful or telling the full story.
"You say there's recycled plastic bottles in my leggings? Sweeeeeeet gimme some of them do-gooder pants!"
And off I go believing my leggings are going to change the world - and that I am awesome for wearing them.
This blog was written in 2016, a full five years ago, and there is now a term for what I am talking about - it's called 'Greenwashing', maybe you've heard of it?
Flashback to when leggings from recycled bottles first became 'a thing'...
So there I was in my plastic pants, highly satisfied with my supposedly eco-friendly purchase "Hey, did you know my pants are made from recycled plastic bottles?" I state more than ask to friends at a party.
Smiling, smugly, I wait for praise from the crowd. Instead, the token smartass pipes up.
"Yah... but what about the process to change the bottles into fabric? Wouldn’t there be a lot of chemicals involved to break them down?"
ME: [Stunned face]
Secretly I love it when the token smartass plays devil's advocate and forces me to go searching for answers. I tend towards being gullible and always seeing the good in everyone, "they wouldn't lie to customers, would they?" Telling such a brazen lie seems inconceivable to someone who would never do business that way, and I've had to learn to be more suspicious of sustainability claims, now often running ideas past the token smartass in my social circle for their ability to call it like it just might be.
So, how do hard plastic bottles = soft and supple leggings?
It became apparent I had missed a few steps in coming to the conclusion my leggings were environmentally friendly.
Below I am going to answer these three questions...
- How do I know there is truly recycled plastic bottles in my leggings?
- Is the process to recycle plastic bottles into leggings truly more eco-friendly?
- Is 100% recycled leggings more eco-friendly if the quality is compromised?
Full disclosure: I am not a professional writer. If finding spelling and grammar mistakes in this article will give you anxiety, please read with a cup of tea and a nail file close at hand.
- HOW DO I KNOW THERE ARE TRULY RECYCLED BOTTLES IN MY PANTS?
This is a big question, and the answer is there may not be.
The industry has become so profitable that some suppliers are making new plastic bottles just to recycle them. Woah, wtf?!
Textile mills (fabric-making-companies) can claim to use polyester made from recycled plastic bottles, but they may have no idea. Polyester suppliers could be selling textiles mills any blend of fibres from new plastic bottles to just new polyester under the false claim that it’s recycled.
In your research on this topic, you may frequently come across the acronym PET. PET stands for polyethylene terephthalate, otherwise known as polyester. There's no test so you can forget the big name, just know that plastic bottles labelled with the #1 have the same chemistry make-up as polyester.
PET = Polyester = #1 plastic bottles
Okay so now you need to know about GRS, aka the Global Recycling Standard.
"The GRS provides a track and trace certification system that ensures that the claims you make about a product can be officially backed up." - Oeco Textiles
There are three levels of GRS certification, bronze, silver and gold, based on the percentage of recycled content. Gold is over 95% and bronze has at least 30%.
Unifi's Repreve® is the name of one company that has achieved the GRS gold-level certification. Unifi's Repreve® turns recycled plastic bottles into smaller fibres that can be spun into yarns used by textile mills to create fabric.
Unifi's Repreve® = 95 - 100% certified recycled content
By looking for products that say Unifi's Repreve® on the hangtag, you can know that you are buying something made from the highest content of certified recycled plastic bottles.
- IS THE PROCESS TRULY MORE ECO-FRIENDLY AND ETHICAL?
It depends. As part of the GRS certification process, they ensure the following:
- That there is a water treatment system in place,
- That no toxic additives are used as process chemicals, and no harmful finishes are added to the fabric
- That workers have basic rights.
So yes, if the clothing brand is using material with a GRS certification, it is likely more eco-friendly and ethical.
Unifi's Repreve®, a GRS gold level certified company, totes the following facts on their website [at time of original blog post September 8th, 2016];
630 million - total number of bottles they have recycled
3.8 million - gallons of gasoline their processes have saved
52,313 people - water saved could supply drinking water to this many for one year
2,943 acres - the amount of pine forest saved
The above numbers are comparing recycled polyester to new polyester.
These numbers were "determined by an independent firm using life cycle inventory (LCA) of the full manufacturing process compared against the same process for virgin fiber. Gas, water per person and pine forest numbers are based on the equivalency information sourced primarily from the EPA." - Unifi's Repreve®
EPA = Environmental Protection Agency.
- IS 100% RECYCLED THE ECO-FRIENDLIEST?
Trick question and the answer is not really.
50% is the maximum content of recycled polyester that can be used in fabric before the quality of the fabric becomes compromised.
Fabrics made from 100% recycled polyester are not as high quality as fabrics made from a blend of recycled and non-recycled.
This is because the quality of recycled polyester fibres is less consistent than the quality of non-recycled polyester fibres, due to inconsistencies in the plastic bottles being recycled. Using too much recycled polyester can result in fabric with more flaws and a shorter lifespan, ie; it will end up in a landfill faster.
Let's breakdown the product care labels for better understanding:
If the care label says: 100% recycled polyester
- This could be true if the company is using GRS gold level certified material. Otherwise, it's likely on a sliding scale of less true to not true.
- There was likely more fabric wastage during production. Fabric wastage = fabric that can't be used during manufacturing and is thus thrown away. Often there is wastage due to flaws in the fabric such as holes and snags. These flaws are more common in fabrics made from 100% recycled polyester than fabrics made from a balance of recycled and new.
- The product may have a shorter lifespan. Fabric made from 100% recycled polyester is likely to breakdown faster, due to fibre inconsistencies. The result is a garment more prone to forming holes and snags.
If the care label says: 50% polyester / 50% recycled polyester
- This means they are claiming that 50% of the polyester fibres used were derived from 100% recycled plastic bottles. "50% of the time I am 100% correct!"
- These percentages are true if the recycled content is GRS gold level certified. If not, then the product may have less recycled content than it is claiming. Perhaps none at all.
- If the recycled content is GRS gold level certified then this product is the ideal balance of recycled vs non-recycled for optimal fabric quality.
THIS IS THE RECAP:
- HOW DO I KNOW THERE’S TRULY RECYCLED BOTTLES IN MY PANTS?
- Some are not recycled at all. Company's that want to prove their source can seek GRS certification (Global Recycling Standard)
- If the company is using GRS Gold level certified material, then 95 - 100% of the recycled polyester content is proven to be made from genuine recycled plastic bottles.
- Unifi's Repreve® is the brand name of one company with GRS Gold level certification. Look for it on product hangtags! If you see this logo on a hangtag it means the brand has applied and been granted permission to use it.
- IS THE PROCESS TRULY MORE ECO-FRIENDLY AND ETHICAL?
- If the product is made from Unifis Repreve® or other GRS certified material then it is likely more eco-friendly and ethical than it's non-recycled or non-certified equivalent.
- IS 100% RECYCLED THE ECO-FRIENDLIEST?
- Studies have shown that the recycled content should not exceed 50%. Using more than 50% recycled polyester results in poorer fabric quality, ie; the fabric is more prone to holes, snagging and ultimately breaking down faster. This means more fabric is wasted during manufacturing and the end-product may end up in a landfill sooner. I cannot definitively say if 50% recycled or 100% recycled is more eco-friendly, as I have not found studies comparing the full impact of one against the other including the production of raw polyester.
For those of you satisfied to stop here, I hope you feel full of world changing knowledge and an eagerness to buy smarter.
For those of you just getting warmed up or left with more questions than answers, you can start by following the links below:
Unifi's Repreve® - Maker of recycled PET material
GRS - Global Recycling Standard - as managed by the Textile Exchange
Original posting: September 8th, 2016
Updated: September 28th, 2019
Please note Bewildher currently does not use Unifi's Repreve® and this article does not say that we do, as at the date originally published September 8th, 2016 Bewildher was not approved to use their registered trademark. This article was updated September 28th, 2019 and our athletic tights are currently made from Greenplus® material made from recycled bottle flake and are GRS certified, as well as STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX® certified and EPA approved.
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