The recycled plastic fashion boom comes at a price

If you’ve been browsing the internet for a new swimsuit this summer, you may have stumbled upon the latest trend in sustainable fashion: bikinis and swimwear made from plastic bottles, ostensibly. diverted from the ocean.

Among US and UK online retailers, swimwear and sportswear described as containing recycled synthetics more than doubled in volume in the year to June compared to 2020, according to the intelligence platform of Edited retail.

Plastic waste has infiltrated virtually every industry. Sneakers brands, from Nike and Adidas to “sustainable” labels such as Veja and Greats, rely on her for their ecological references.

Couture designers created extravagant plastic looks to make a statement on the runway. Japanese designer Tomo Koizumi this year presented voluminous recycled plastic organza dresses in candy pink, yellow and blue. In 2019, Prada reissued its iconic 90s nylon bag in a recycled version.

You can even buy all of this with an Amex credit card made from plastic waste.

The boom probably started about 15 years ago. US manufacturer Unifi launched recycled polyester fiber in 2007, with outerwear companies Patagonia and Polartec among its first customers for fleece outerwear that has become a financial industry meme.

Fiber now represents nearly 40% of its turnover and some 800 brands use it. The rest of Unifi’s products are so-called virgin synthetics.

Switching to recycled polyester is an effective choice in terms of immediate environmental impact. It produces about 70% less greenhouse gas emissions than virgin polyester, according to the nonprofit industry group Textile Exchange.

If a brand is trying to have a bigger impact on their emission reductions in particular, recycled raw materials are a great option. Because they can start small and scale it, ”said Siena Shepard, head of climate strategy at Textile Exchange.

Like most sustainability trends, this one has a catch: your recycled plastic swimsuit is very likely to end up in a landfill or back into the sea, as washing causes microplastics to enter. the water system.

Adidas introduced a plastic running shoe under the Futurecraft.loop brand in 2019, promising that every shoe would be remade from an old pair of sneakers. © Adidas

But the most immediate problem for fashion brands is the rising cost of recycled plastic.

The same plastic needed to make clothing – recycled polyethylene terephthalate plastic, or rPET – already has a voracious market: recycled consumer goods packaging.

And the supply is tight, in part thanks to the world’s dismal recycling capacity.

Globally, plastic recycling rates are estimated at 14-18%, according to the OECD. In the United States, only 30 percent of PET bottles are recycled, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

“The increasing use of recycled polyester in recent years has made supply costs increasingly competitive with virgin polyester,” said Adidas, which has converted 60% of its polyester to recycled inventory.

Line graph of € per tonne showing that prices for recycled plastic exceed 'virgin' material

Until 2019, the price of rPET used to make recycled polyester was € 1,050 per tonne, or around € 200 less than virgin PET. Now the price has jumped to € 1,435. More expensive, often transparent, food-grade rPET used for packaging consumable items costs € 1,800 per tonne.

For fast fashion groups whose USP needs to produce clothes as cheaply and quickly as possible, paying the extra pennies for recycled polyester is starting to add up, affecting the margin on a $ 5 t-shirt.

According to the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, in a survey of growing UK groups Asos, Boohoo, its subsidiary PrettyLittleThing and Missguided, recycled synthetics were found in just 3% of products.

H&M, the world’s second-largest fashion retailer and owner of the Cos, Arket, & Other Stories and Weekday brands, has pledged to use 100% recycled and sustainably sourced materials by 2030. The group said that only 5.8% of its products currently contain recycled materials.

“We aim to increase our use of recycled polyester every year,” H&M said. “Even though we always set ambitious goals, we do so on the basis of the expertise of our own sustainable development teams as well as our various partners, which makes our goals as ambitious as they are realistic. “

H&M introduced an in-store recycling machine that shreds clothing into fibers which are then spun and knitted into new fashion items
H&M introduced an in-store recycling machine that shreds clothing into fibers which are then spun and knitted into new fashion items. It is committed to using 100% recycled and sustainably sourced materials by 2030. © Erik Lefvander / H & M / Cover Images via Reuters

“The main reason is just a build-up of voluntary commitments, sustainability goals and legislation, and there isn’t enough supply in Europe for everyone to do,” said Ben Brooks. , responsible for recycled plastics at S&P Global Platts.

New taxes on virgin PET are likely to push the demand for rPET even further.

This year, the EU introduced a tax on virgin plastic packaging and the UK will levy packaging that does not contain 30% recycled content by April 2022.

Some fiber manufacturers and plastic giants are starting to acquire their own recycling capacity in response.

The world’s largest PET producer Indorama Ventures has received a $ 300 million loan from the International Finance Corporation to help expand its PET bottle recycling capacity to 750,000 tonnes per year by 2025 .

Another large PET producer, DAK Americas, acquired an rPET facility in the United States in 2019. Chemical group Dow has partnered with recycling company Mura Technology to source recycled raw materials from waste. plastics from a new facility at Teeside in the UK.

Video: Chemical recycling: the end of plastic waste?

Industry forerunner Unifi also has a PET bottle recycling facility in North Carolina, where it is based. “To increase the supply of this waste, we need consumers, businesses and governments to work together to increase recycling rates,” said Jay Hertwig, vice president of marketing.

Even as fashion brands meet their recycled content targets and the world increases its recycling capacity, another long-term problem looms: Recycled polyester itself is not mechanically recyclable. Like most virgin plastics, it will likely end up in landfill.

The only way to achieve large-scale circular textile-to-textile recycling is through chemical recycling, a process in which plastic waste is broken down into chemicals or oils, providing the raw material for future plastics.

Petrochemical companies such as Shell, Dow and Indorama all invest in chemical recycling technology. Several start-ups, such as Worn Again, are specialized in textile-textile chemical recycling.

“Longer term, the solution for recycling plastics and in particular polyester clothing will be chemical recycling,” said Rob Stier, chief petrochemical analyst at S&P Global Platts.

However, “[these] are years away from major commercial operations, they will likely have a very bad carbon footprint and be expensive, ”adds Stiers. “So yes it will meet demand, but at what cost? “

This article has been modified since the first publication to clarify that Dow has partnered with Mura Technology to source recycled raw materials made from waste plastics, not rPET, from a new facility in Teeside.

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Letter in response to this article:

Fast fashion must be honest with consumers about plastics / De Nusa Urbancic, The Changing Markets Foundation London EC2, UK

Richard L. Militello