Fashion brands are increasingly offering tops, outerwear, shoes, underwear, and even scrunchies made from recycled plastic water bottles. But what does this mean when the finished product you purchase — a fuzzy fleece jacket or a pair of smooth leggings — looks and feels nothing like plastic. How are water bottles turned into physical garments and most importantly, is it safe to wear clothing made from plastic water bottles? After all, you’ve likely heeded the advice to not reuse single-use plastic bottles over and over — they can leach chemicals and harbor bacteria growth — so what would, then, make plastic safe to wear on your body.
To begin diving into this topic, you’ll need to be briefed on how a plastic water bottle (known as polyethylene terephthalate or PET) gets turned into a yarn of recycled polyester, which fashion brands can then use to create a jacket or shirt. Water bottles are first collected and sorted by facilities in countries like Taiwan, which runs a robust, government-regulated recycling program. Anything that can’t be processed with the bottles gets removed, like the cap or ring, then the bottles head to a machine that breaks them down.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, one plastic bottle takes approximately 450 years to break down and in a study published by Reuters in 2019, almost 1 million plastic bottles are purchased every minute. In the United States alone, 1,500 plastic water bottles are consumed every second while the recycling percentage of PET bottles in the U.S. was 27.9 percent in 2019. The potential to repurpose these water bottles wasn’t lost on the fashion industry and with sustainability as an initiative for most brands in 2021 and beyond, the idea of creating clothes from waste has been quickly embraced.
“There are two types of recycling. There's chemical recycling and there's mechanical recycling,” says Brian Koegel, co-founder of activewear label Tenere, to TZR. “Chemical recycling is very expensive and not often used [by companies] mainly because of the cost, but what that does is it brings the plastic, or whatever you're recycling, all the way down to its initial chemical property and completely resets that. Mechanical recycling means melting the fabric back into a liquid or melting the plastic bottle back into a liquid.” The latter method, according to a 2017 Swiss Federal Office for the Environment report, has been used for years in the industry while studies for chemical recycling to make it more accessible are still being conducted.
Once plastic water bottles are melted down, they’re then re-extruded. “If you’ve ever used a hot glue gun, [this process] is very similar to that, says Martin Mulvihill co-founder of Safer Made, a venture capital firm that invests in other companies and technologies to eliminate the use of hazardous chemicals in consumer products and supply chains. “That means the melted plastic is put through a machine ... you heat it up and the plastic that went in one side, a flake comes out the other side in a long filament, and that is chopped up into pellets. These pellets are what a fabric mill or a yarn mill would use to spin fiber.” Everlane is one brand that uses the mechanical process, as shown below via its website.
Depending on the fashion brand, the company either purchase this yarn directly from places like REPREVE — a brand that makes fiber out of post-consumer plastic bottles and pre-consumer waste — to weave or knit its clothing from (Reformation, Mara Hoffman, and Venus Williams’ brand EleVen use REPREVE for some of their collections) or a brand oversees the extrusion process completely like Girlfriend Collective. It partners with a recycling facility in Taiwan to obtain the pellets that are then taken to Girlfriend’s own spinning mill where yarn is produced.
Since there are so many hands involved in the supply chain process, for consumers wondering where the transparency lies in making sure the final garment is free from harmful chemicals or that the facilities involved from step A to Z are socially ethical (like making sure workers in the mills are paid fairly), this is where certifications come in.
Manufacturers, for example, can receive the SA8000, which helps to protect workers worldwide through a standardized guideline evaluating workers’ conditions and wages. Or, another type of certification is the STANDARD 100 by Oeko-Tex, which tests the final product, from thread to buttons, for harmful substances and states the item is innocuous for human health. Eco-conscious shoppers should, ideally, be able to find these certifications on a brand’s website. Girlfriend Collective lists both its SA8000 and STANDARD 100 certification on the about me page while the Tenere site has a detailed page listing all its partners. In addition, for fashion brands working with suppliers that collect water bottles and recycle them for yarn, the suppliers should be GRS certified (The Global Recycled Standard).
“You want to make sure your suppliers are truly buying post-consumer materials and the GRS certification process goes through the supply chain to make sure they’re coming from recycled products,” says Kimberley Smith, chief supply chain officer at Everlane. “What you don’t want to happen is to have two facilities, where one of them is a water bottle factory and you’re just buying [new] water bottles from them [versus using post-consumer water bottles]. That has happened in the past.”
If all the steps were followed properly, then is the end recycled polyester product, whether that be a swimsuit or shoe, safe to wear? In short: yes, it’s safe to wear clothing, even underwear, made from post-consumer plastic water bottles. However, the catch is that while PET itself is safe to wear, dyes and other finishing processes the natural or synthetic yarn goes through on its way to become that shirt or bikini can still contain harmful substances.
“It depends on how the product is made. I can use virgin polyester and make a yarn that’s safe, but then really screw it up at the dying stage [with toxic dyes]. I can do the same thing with recycled [polyester],” says Ben Mead, managing director at the Hohenstein Institute America, an international company that specializes in the testing, certification, and research of textiles. “From the chemical standpoint, it’s not about ‘is this material good or bad,’ it’s about consumers being able to know and easily identify if the brand has [done its due diligence] in testing the product for harmful substances and the easy way for them to know is to have a credible third party label on it.”
Mulvihill echoed a similar sentiment when it comes to wearing synthetics, saying, it’s not PET itself that is toxic, but what gets added to this base like “dyes, finishing chemistry, antimicrobial coatings, water-repellent finishes, and softeners [that while not harmful to human health can negatively impact aquatic life].” Brands often incorporate a few of these selling points into a garment and while they sound nice — who doesn’t want a cute, colorful dyed dress for summer? — consumers should always shop with caution and questions. Labels from agencies like Oeko-Tex or those under the Textile Exchange nonprofit are more important than ever, in this case, in providing consumers with transparency that a synthetic garment is safe to wear.
Shopping for clothing made out of water bottles is ultimately a small step in the right direction for eco-conscious shoppers and safe to wear if the garment has been tested properly. Patagonia has made clothes from plastic soda bottles since the ‘90s and was one of the first outdoor apparel brands to adopt this recyclable method. Now, more and more brands are joining in on the practice. There are several reasons for this; the first one being the most obvious in that sustainability has become a personal pillar for many shoppers.
“From a sustainability standpoint, it’s a brilliant use of material, the repurposing of plastic and [having that] be converted into apparel versus making more virgin plastic” says Saskia Van Gendt, head of sustainability at footwear and accessories label Rothy’s. “The reason brands are recognizing the utility of recycled polyester and leaning into [it], too, is also from customer demand because consumers are [becoming more aware] of [the detrimental impacts] of having plastic in the ocean.”
Reformation’s Chief Sustainability Officer and Vice President of Operations Kathleen Talbot adds, “There’s no denying that the average consumer has an increased awareness of the global impact of fashion and the culture of waste it fosters. We’re seeing people demand better materials, and that will only increase over time.”
Aside from the environmentally-friendly perspective, Mulvihill points out that the larger trend of brands moving towards using recycled polyester is simply the cost. “They’re cheaper, to be honest,” he says. “It's a cost-driven thing. There are some environmental trade-offs [when] compared to cotton because cotton uses a lot more water, and cotton dying is actually a lot nastier than polyester dying. But, most companies are choosing to move towards polyester based on cost and performance.”
The practice of using post-consumer water bottles for clothing is a trend industry leaders expect will become the status quo. “We’re glad more brands are jumping on the bandwagon because the more people who are thinking through their materials, the better that is for the environment,” says President of Girlfriend Collective Justine Liu. “[Girlfriend is] not here to block in some competitive edge on being in the sustainable athleisure realm. We think customers are savvy and educated, so the more brands that can be on the same page, the better for everyone.”
Purchasing a garment made from recycled water bottles doesn’t free you completely from contributing to plastic waste, though. Like most fibers, recycled polyester will still shed in the wash cycle, which can add to the microplastic problem that’s plaguing the environment. “We don't know what percentage of ocean microplastics is from fibers versus single-use packaging versus something else, but it is clear that microfibers from our clothing end up in the wastewater, and some of that makes it into the environment,” says Mulvihill. “We're still trying to characterize what the harm is there. If it's cotton fiber, it's going to break down on a faster timeline than if it's a polyester fiber or a nylon fiber.”
To catch some of these microfibers before they make their way into the water system, brands like Rothy’s sell accompanying wash bags while Girlfriend Collective offers a microfiber filter for your washing machine. “Our tests showed that our wash bags reduce the release of microfibers by 65 percent,” reveals Van Gendt. Other ways to reduce microfiber shedding is to invest in front-loading machines, which are shown to release fewer microfibers than top-loading machines, and to simply wash your clothes on cold water and wash less often.
On top of all this, once your recycled polyester garment is at the end of its lifecycle there’s no singular place where you can dispose of it for it to be remade into another product. Though some companies like Reformation and ADAY do have take-back programs. “[Converting] water bottles into resin is done at a huge scale, but clothing back into clothing isn’t done yet on a kind of appreciable scale,” says Mulvihill.
In order to effectively reduce fashion waste, shopping secondhand and buying fewer clothes are some routes you can take. For those who are seeking to add a few more pieces to their summer wardrobe and must shop, however, start your purchase journey with the eco-conscious pieces below.
We only recommend products we love and that we think you will, too. We may receive a portion of sales from products purchased from this article, which was written by our Commerce team.