Turning Plastic Waste into Clothes

Turning Plastic Waste Into Clothes

Most of us are aware of the plastic waste problem we face. As we aim to reduce plastic pollution, turning plastic waste into clothes could be a game-changer. From big brands to young, considerate business owners, green clothing is set to become a serious trend5.

The reality of the situation is more than alarming. There are plastic water bottles floating around the oceans and plastic waste damaging wildlife. Clearly, we have a big problem with plastic waste that we need to face up to.

Thankfully we can now see all sorts of innovations helping to reduce the amount of plastic waste that makes its way into our natural environment.

To reduce plastic waste, we need to reduce, reuse and recycle - or rethink! From banning the bag through to swaps to more sustainable packaging and reusable items, we're making progress.

Amongst growing concern, reusing and recycling plastic we would otherwise discard to create clothing looks set to help to make a dent in the overall problem.

Fast Fashion - Not So Fast!

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Fast fashion

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

In recent times the fashion industry has, rightly, received a bad wrap for producing mountains of cheap clothing. Fast fashion, often produced offshore for knockdown prices in response to the latest trend seems everywhere.

The fashion industry's focus appears to have been on keeping up with our seemingly insatiable demand for the next trendy item, instead of considering sustainability. Fast fashion production methods produce waste, use a needless amount of water and waste resources.

Not least a bikini or shirt bought for a few dollars simply doesn’t last. Often we wear these fast fashion items less than items made to higher quality and inevitably higher cost.

This is essentially producing a similar issue to the plastic problem where resources are used, wasted and new products are needlessly created.

However, today more concern around our environment increasingly pervades people's shopping habits. And with shifting behaviours more people now look to hold companies to account against their sustainability and track record. Or at the very least choose to support those that they believe are doing their bit with the wallets.

In fact, recent research by Accenture found that over half of UK consumers want brands to actively take a stand to deliver on issues related to sustainability, fair employment and transparency.

As such, more fashion designers and manufacturers are now seeking a circular approach and sustainable fashion whereby they produce less waste, use fewer resources and resell and reuse items again and again.

The only way to overcome this problem is to seek out new ways and ideas. We need new methods that solve several problems at the same time. Global warming, pollution, our health and damage to our planet7, these are all concerns that we need to address.

Through recycling plastic and using it to make clothing, we have an opportunity to reduce carbon emissions and create a whole new approach within the fashion industry at the same time.

Making Clothing from Plastic

Green or eco-friendly clothing is made from sustainable materials such as bamboo or hemp. However, technology now also allows us to use recycled plastic to create sustainable fashion2. As a result, when we manufacture green clothing via methods that reuse resources that might otherwise go to waste we move closer to a more environmentally friendly outcome3.

What’s more, clothes from plastic waste can help to reduce carbon emissions. This is down to a reduction in processes resulting from the use of recycled products that have already been made. Simply put reusing these products is better for the environment than creating raw materials from scratch. To add to this, it also reduces the need to attempt to remove plastic through alternative recycling processes.

The great thing about plastic clothing is that it means that people do not have to compromise on their choice of clothes or fashion and this is a vital aspect of changing perceptions and behaviours.

When we think of plastic, we think of it as a hard and solid material. A material that is durable, flexible and used in a range of applications. However, when it comes to clothing made from plastic, there is often no real difference between texture or quality from that of normal clothing.

Of course quality varies, and plastic is more apt for clothing that already contains synthetics.

A lot of recycled plastic used in clothing comes from a material known as Polyethylene Terephthalate, or PET. This is the material that we find in bottles and textiles due to it being strong, flexible and light. In fact, over 50% of the synthetic fibres in the world are made from PET.

Transforming single-use plastic into clothing might be difficult to imagine. However, as this approach develops we’ll see more clothing made from plastic waste such as fishing nets or plastic bottles, turned into fabrics.

Plastic clothing provides us with a way of reducing the wide range of processes involved in growing the likes of cotton that uses a lot of resources such as water to create clothing in the traditional way.

What is the Process?

The plastic waste gets collected and then compressed and placed into bales before transportation to the factory that processes plastic waste. Once at the facility, they break the plastic waste down into small flakes.

Following this, they get turned into small pellets at another facility. The pellets are then melted yet again before being filtered and spun into threads by being passed through a nozzle that resembles a showerhead. This turns the plastic into a viscose yarn for further treatment.

The way in which the yarn is treated will depend on how it is used. 

Therefore, we can use it in a range of clothing such as sports bras, swimwear or t-shirts. The entire process creates clothing that can remain within the recycling process.

This means that we can recycle clothing time and time again. This is known as the circular economy and many fashion designers are now turning to this more sustainable approach. There are even programs out there that take clothes for recycling such as the Repreve Textile Takeback program.

What Types of Clothing Can We Make?

ECOALF, a eco-friendly fashion brand from Spain have a whole range of clothes, from jackets to jeans, both both men and women, all made from recycled plastic. Image credit: ECOALF.

SHOP ECOALF ON AMAZON

The truth is, once we turn plastic into yarn, we can use it in many different kinds of clothing. It also means that clothing made this way has the ability to meet consumer demands, especially those who are fashion conscious and eco-minded4.

A growing number of brands now create clothing made from plastic in one way or another. As such, it seems as though the possibilities are endless. We now see everything from winter jackets made from plastic, through sleeping bags, t-shirts and footwear hit the market.

The sports industry also plays a vital role as it uses plastic to manufacture the national football team kits of England and Brazil.

What Brands are Manufacturing Clothing Made From Plastic?

Adidas Ocean Plastic Sneakers

Adidas Parley running shoes are part made from recycled Ocean Plastics. Image Source / Credit: Adidas


With the rise of ethical clothing brands, many of the big brands are now embracing the idea of turning plastic waste into clothing resulting in more sustainable fashion.

Some of the most influential brands in the world of fashion are now using recycled materials to create clothing. So, brands such as girlfriend collective, Gucci or Alyx are now using recycled waste to inject sustainability into the world of fashion. Brands have become creative with this new material and many looks and trends have even managed to hit the catwalks.

Plastic clothing also has the ability to change perceptions of the consumer, especially where respected brands show an interest1. And with an army of eco-friendly fashion bloggers keen to rally behind and support innovative developments, now is the time.

Adidas is using recycled plastic in trainers while Patagonia offers a range of recycled fleeces. What’s more, Norden now offers its warmest jacket yet, made from 98 recycled water bottles. This jacket has a rating of -40°C, proving that recycling plastic not only worthwhile but can also deliver highly functional garments.

Another large sports brands, Nike, is also making use of recycled plastic. The company has prevented 5 million plastic bottles from reaching landfill. Therefore, 75% of its footwear and clothing contains some form of recycled plastic.

The idea of brands embracing recycled plastic is an exciting prospect. As more of them begin turning plastic waste into clothes, they can help to prevent pollution.

Is Clothing Made From Plastic any Better?

Should we consider this kind of clothing as a trend? Should we be looking at it as the future of the clothing industry?

Manufacturers typically make traditional synthetic clothing using PET polyester. However, clothes made from plastic do offer some benefits for the environment. A life cycle assessment that took place in 2010 found that we could make savings of 40-85% on non-renewable energy. As a result, this could lead to global warming reductions of as much as 75%6.

These are impressive results and go a long way to prove that recycling can make a difference. Despite this, it is important to understand that many of the benefits related to the production process. What this means is that clothing is not made from scratch and so, we use fewer resources. In contrast, we could also make a similar impact if we choose to purchase clothing from charity stores.

Of course, if we continue to produce fast and wasteful fashion, even if from recycled materials, we only partly mitigate the environmental impacts.

Is Turning Plastic Waste into Clothes the Future?

Still, with so much plastic waste, we only recycle a small portion of it. However, when it comes to the fashion industry, this is a significant breakthrough.

Fashion, for decades, has underpinned the behaviours and thinking of people. It has been an inspiration and people follow trends and fashion.

People are becoming more conscious about the planet. They are seeking a greener way of living and so, the demand for plastic clothing is on the rise. Perhaps now is the time to push fashion snobbery aside.

Critics are now displaying their love for recycled plastic textiles. To add to this, they are unable to notice the difference in the feel of it, while models are claiming that it is comfortable and soft on the skin.

When you consider that sports brands are creating plastic clothing for athletes, it is clear to see that it is a valid replacement. Or at least an eco-friendly alternative to traditional manufacture. Especially from a usability and versatility perspective.

Furthermore, brands and designers are showing their support for the environment. As such the fashion industry now heads into an era in which quite how authentically and how fast it can become sustainable will define future success.

As technology advances and manufacturers become aware of the situation we find ourselves in, the clothing industry looks set to transform and make further strides towards doing their bit to help reduce the impact of global warming and pollution. We'll no doubt see more brands turning plastic waste into clothes.

With such an influential role in our day to day lives, across trends and lifestyle, the fashion industry can and should continue to step up to help our environment.

Photo by Karina Tess on Unsplash

1Yukie Nakano, Perceptions Towards Clothes with Recycled Content and Environmental Awareness: the Development of End Markets, Editor(s): M. Miraftab, A.R. Horrocks, In Woodhead Publishing Series in Textiles, Ecotextiles, Woodhead Publishing, 2007, Pages 3-14, ISBN 9781845692148, https://doi.org/10.1533/9781845693039.1.3
2Kirsi Niinimäki, Lotta Hassi, Emerging design strategies in sustainable production and consumption of textiles and clothing, Journal of Cleaner Production, Volume 19, Issue 16, 2011, Pages 1876-1883, ISSN 0959-6526, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2011.04.020
3Sustainability in Fashion and Textiles. Values, Design, Production and Consumption. Edited By Miguel Angel Gardetti, Ana Laura Torres
4Jin Gam, H. (2011), "Are fashion‐conscious consumers more likely to adopt eco‐friendly clothing?", Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management, Vol. 15 No. 2, pp. 178-193. https://doi.org/10.1108/13612021111132627
5Naila Aaijaz, and Mohamed Dahlan Ibrahim, (2010) Green clothing and eco-fashion:a growing sustainable market for SME's. In: Proceedings of 2010 International Conference on Technology Innovation and Industrial Management., 16 - 18 Jun 2010, Pattaya, Thailand
6Li Shen, Ernst Worrell, Martin K. Patel, Open-loop recycling: A LCA case study of PET bottle-to-fibre recycling, Resources, Conservation and Recycling, Volume 55, Issue 1, 2010, Pages 34-52, ISSN 0921-3449, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resconrec.2010.06.014
7Haines A. Global warming and health. BMJ. 1991;302(6778):669–670. doi:10.1136/bmj.302.6778.669
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