The Problem with Leggings Made out of Recycled Plastic Waste
Posted by : Ashley Southard /
Your recycled plastic leggings may not be so great after all.
We see them everywhere lately, especially marketed toward the female environmentally-conscious, activewear-loving demographic: these (pants, shirts, leggings) are made from recycled plastic bottles! Companies tout the benefits of using recycled plastic in their clothes, but do so without explaining the exhaustive process from discarded bottle to woven polyester garment.
Why won’t your yoga pants made from plastic bottles help the environment?
Supply and Demand.
When you buy things encased in plastic, you’re contributing to the demand of it.
When you buy things made of plastic, you’re contributing to the demand of it.
…When you buy things made out of recycled plastic, you’re contributing to the demand of it.
That seems all well and good, right? In theory, yes. But in terms of simple economics, no. It’s certainly the lesser of 2 evils, if the second evil was creating synthetic fabrics from brand new plastic – but it’s not the clothing industry’s saving grace. Recycled plastic clothing provides an “out” for companies still leaning toward cheap plastic production: it allows them to rationalize – “it’s ok, this plastic will be turned into something else.”
What’s more: most recycled plastic textiles are combined with additional fibers (such as cotton or elastin), which makes them nearly impossible to be recycled after their lifecycle (AKA: they don’t end up getting recycled).
For this recycled plastic solution to offset the damage that the first-use plastic has caused the environment, the following 2 rules must apply:
Rule #1: The quantity of companies recycling the plastic into alternative sources (such as clothing) would need to be equal to the quantity of companies producing the plastic.
91% of plastic isn’t recycled – but you didn’t need National Geographic to tell you that; you can probably see it everywhere from the streets you walk to the beaches you visit.
Pass or fail? Fail.
Rule #2: The amount of environmental impact created in recycling the first-use plastic into usable fibers for textiles must cause no additional damage to the environment.
The conversion of plastic waste to synthetic fibers for use as garment textiles is far from harmless – watch this 5-minute video (also from National Geographic) that walks you through the recycled plastic clothing process from start to finish, which includes:
- Bottles shredded to sort contaminants out
- Shreds packaged to be shipped around the world
- Shreds are sent to their first bath, where the denser plastic from the bottlecaps float to the top and are strained out
- Shreds are sent to their second bath of caustic chemicals that remove residues and stickers
- Double-“bathed” shreds are put into large dryers.
- Shreds are forced through molds that melt them into threads. Think it’s done? Nope!
- This thread isn’t strong enough – these threads are bound together in a heating and stretching process… and then it’s torn apart again.
- The tearing apart of all of this creates “fluff” that looks like cotton wool
- Another machine turns this full into felt through
- The felt is turned into thread by machines, which feeds the thread onto the bobbins that feed a master loom, which weaves the sheets of polyester fabric.
- This fabric is white. If/when the textile is to be dyed, stronger (more caustic) dyes must be used, since the plastic has been extensively processed and is less amenable to dye acceptance.
You can see that every step of this process does at least one of the following:
- Releases microplastics into the environment (1-10) – more on that below
- Wastes water (3, 4)
- Uses toxins that are harmful to the environment and the workers handling the product (4)
Pass or fail? Fail.
What’s the deal with microplastics?
Microplastics make up at least 30% of the plastic pollution in the ocean (236,000 metric tons) – we say at least because the macro scale of these micro plastics has just recently come to light, and since they’re so small, scientists and researchers are still trying to determine how to get the most information from these teensy tiny things that aren’t so easy to capture – and it’s hard to determine how much sea life has consumed it.
It gets scarier – scientists believe that by 2050, the amount of plastic in the ocean will outweigh the amount of fish.
And it’s not just the ocean! It’s also:
in the rain: in a recent study, microplastics were found in 90% of rainfall – while every study that’s tested for micropl
in our air: “If you go outside with a UV light, set at a wavelength of 400 nanometers, and shine it sideways you’ll see all kinds of plastic particles in the air fluoresce,” she said. “It’s almost worse indoors. It’s all a bit terrifying.” (Dr. Allen for National Geographic)
…all this effort we put into not consuming goods from plastic – and yet we’re starting to breathe it as a pollutant daily!
What’s this got to do with your recycled plastic yoga pants?
Washing one load of polyester and synthetic material (that’s plastic – including recycled plastic) clothing produces up to 6 million microfilaments of polyester (plastic) thread that cannot be filtered out – instead they go straight out of your washer and leave into your city’s water waste system, completely undetected, eventually making their way into our oceans.
Think about how many people there are in the world (7.7 billion). Now think about all of the clothes they wear – and how often they are washed.
If/when you dry your clothes in a dryer, you have to remove the lint screen to dispose of lint (or else your dryer doesn’t work as well – energy waster!) – that’s only the amount of fibers your machine was able to catch – barely any of the micro particles that come from the clothing.
For some perspective: 1 strand of human hair is 80,000 to 100,000 nanometers wide. Microplastics are as small as 100 nanometers.
There is a positive caveat to all of this: not all synthetic fibers shed the same. Since not all fibers are made the same, naturally, they won't all shed the same. Generally, the more tightly-knit the polyster, the less shedding there will be; conversely, the more fuzzy or loose-knit (such as fleece), the more shedding there will be.
It’s not just about the environment – it’s about what’s best for you, too!
We spend so much time avoiding plastic – whether it’s the bottles we drink from or the storage for our food, why would we cover our body in it? Wearing tight-fitting clothing that we sweat in literally bathes our skin in it – and recycled or not, that’s not good for the largest organ of our body!
What can I do instead?
When you buy something, you’re validating it as something you want and approve of – you’re saying, “I like this. I want this. Produce more!”
The simple solution? Don’t buy anything synthetic, even if recycled – and take actions to educate others about the microplastic macro-epidemic (share this article with friends, family, on your social networks)!
Instead, support the production of clothes made from natural fibers that will biodegrade – even if their microfibers are released in the wash. Look for 100% organic, 100% natural fibers as your first choice. There are times you'll find textiles labeled as 100% natural fiber, but take caution, as their natural fibers may be grown with pesticides, or their production process may include inorganic chemicals that are also harmful to the environment. Some examples of 100% natural fibers include any combination (or single source) of: cotton, linen, wool, nettle, hemp, wood pulp, bamboo, eucalyptus, and more.
Right now, it may be a little more expensive to purchase organic and natural fibers, but if consumers increase demand for these "clean dressing" products, more companies will increase their supply to meet the demand - which will cause the price to decrease (more economics for ya!).
When it comes to yoga clothes, you can still enjoy the sleek, slimming feel of a great pair of yoga pants. Instead of skintight polyester (whether recycled or not), check out:
Of course, you likely have clothing that’s not 100% natural fiber (we all do – no judgement!). In that case, opt for solutions that catch many of the harmful microfibers in the wash, before they’re drained out of your washing machine:
Remember: even one small change – a $30 washer ball – will make an impact. Consider, when you’re purchasing a new pair of yoga pants, how they’re sourced, what goes into the process of making them (including how it affects the people involved in addition to the environment), and what signal you’re sending to the company manufacturing them with your purchase.
As consumers, we vote with our wallets – and fortunately, we don’t have to wait every 4 years to do so.