Trend alert: Recycled plastic is now in style. Over the last few years, fashion brands—particularly in the direct-to-consumer space—began rolling out products made from discarded plastic. In 2016, the shoe brand Rothy’s launched flats made from recycled water bottles. Last year, the clothing brand Everlane made the commitment to swap out all the plastic in clothes to recycled plastic, also made from plastic bottles. And just last week, the luggage brand Paravel said it had swapped out all the plastic in its bags, backpacks, and packing cubes to the recycled kind.
This seems like a step in the right direction. After all, the world is drowning in plastic. Since the material was first invented in 1907, 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced to date. Of this, 6.3 billion metric tons was waste. Only 9% of this plastic has been recycled, and a further 12% has been incinerated, a process that spews carbon and toxic chemicals into the atmosphere. The rest now sits in landfills and our oceans, where it will stay for hundreds of years, since plastic does not decompose.
For years, recycled plastic was significantly lower in quality compared to brand new plastic. For instance, it tended to pill easily and was not as durable, as Patagonia’s senior director of materials innovation, Matt Dwyer, told me. But recently, thanks in part to demand from consumers, suppliers have managed to improve the quality of recycled plastic to the point that it is largely indistinguishable from new plastic. More specifically, manufacturers have perfected the art of breaking down old plastic bottles, which are made from PET. Industrial recyclers turn these bottles into pellets called rPET, which can then be reformed into new bottles or extruded into fibers. This new, improved rPET seems like a natural solution to the world’s waste woes.
However, some experts believe it isn’t a great solution to the plastic crisis. At the Fast Company Innovation Festival last week, Maxine Bedat—the founder of the New Standard Institute, which uses data to quantify sustainability in the fashion industry—raised serious problems with the material.
There’s not enough recycled plastic to go around
I followed up with Bedat to find out more about her concerns. “At first, it seemed like a no-brainer,” Bedat says. “We thought it was a great solution. But as we dug into it further, we realized there were some major problems with recycled plastic as a solution to the plastic problem.”
For one thing, there isn’t enough recycled plastic on the market, and fashion brands are now eagerly trying to get their hands on a limited supply. This is partly because of our behavior as consumers. Around the world, we’re not recycling our bottles at high enough rates. In the United States, less than 30% of all plastic bottles are recycled. In Europe, 58% of bottles are recycled. In developing countries, where there aren’t very good waste management systems, rates are far lower. If all of us did a better job recycling our bottles and if governments created penalties for not recycling, there would be more recycled plastic on the market.
Right now, there is already massive demand for recycled plastic from the bottling industry. Many large consumer packaged goods companies, including Coca-Cola and Nestlé, have pledged to use more recycled plastic in their packaging. PepsiCo, for instance, purchased almost half of all bottle grade rPET sold in the United States in 2015. And each bottle the company makes contains at least 10% rPET. Tim Carey, the senior director of sustainability at PepsiCo, says that the company would buy more, but it simply cannot get its hands on enough of it. “There isn’t enough rPET available,” Carey told The Atlantic. “If there was more on the market we could put more in.”
Part of the shortage comes down to fashion brands, which have started eating up a lot of the recycled plastic (rPET) on the global market. At a recent plastics recycling conference, Tison Keel, a consultant who analyzes the plastics industry, explained that this enormous demand for fabrics made from recycled plastic is posing a problem to bottling companies that want to make new bottles from old ones. He said that there is a now a “bottomless” appetite for rPET from the fiber industry, which now consumes three-quarters of all rPET produced around the world every year.
While fashion brands market their recycled plastic products as eco-friendly and sustainable, it’s important to note that recycled plastic is actually cheaper than the virgin kind. “The driver is simply cost,” writes Jared Paben in the trade publication Plastics Recycling Update. “It’s substantially cheaper to produce staple fiber from recovered PET than virgin materials.”
And given that it is actually cheaper to buy recycled plastic than virgin plastic, Bedat doesn’t think that it is fair for fashion brands to point to their use of recycled plastic as a sign of their eco-friendly practices. “It’s actually better for their bottom line to use recycled plastic,” says Bedat. “And by saying their products are sustainable, they might actually be driving up demand for recycled plastic, which makes it more expensive for other industries that also want to use the material.”
As fashion brands eat into the relatively small supply of recycled plastic, they drive up the price of that material. And this only serves to make recycled plastic less attractive to other industries that rely on the material, like the plastic bottle industry.
Plastic is just one of many problems
Bedat also points out that while a plastic bottle can be recycled many times, recycled plastic clothes cannot be further recycled given our current technology. In other words, the fashion industry is not actually diverting these bottles from landfills—at least not in the grand scheme of things. While you can throw a recycled plastic bottle back into the recycling bin, a recycled plastic parka you bought will eventually end up in a landfill, where it will not decompose.
So what should brands do? I spoke to Everlane’s CEO Michael Presyman earlier this year about how it is cutting out virgin plastic from the company’s supply chain. He pointed out that the company tries to keep its plastic footprint—recycled or otherwise—very low. But there are some garments, like raincoats or activewear, that require plastic. In these cases, recycled plastic is far better than virgin plastic, because it is not actively contributing to new plastic on the planet.
Bedat agrees with this, but with two caveats. First, she believes all sustainable brands should really be in the business of selling less. This might seem counterintuitive, but she thinks it is important for companies with a conscience to consider how to grow financially without increasing their use of resources. This might involve making highly durable garments that can last a long time. Or offering repair services, so garments can be given a second or third life.
And secondly, she believes that brands should ultimately think beyond just a single material, like plastic.
After all, plastic is just one part of a bigger picture when it comes to sustainability: There are also carbon emissions, toxic chemicals, and water consumption to consider, among other things. So brands should invest in studying the entire trajectory of a product from raw materials to disposal, and they should conduct what is know as a “life-cycle assessment.” This will allow them to determine what they can change about their manufacturing to have the biggest impact.
“Material choice is just one small part of the story,” Bedat says. “Plastic pollution is important, but we shouldn’t get so distracted by it we don’t take into account the other ways a garment pollutes.”