Garbage Fashion: T-Shirts Made From Recycled Bottles

Photograph by BIWA/Gallery Stock

The graphic T-shirt at the Brooklyn Industries store looks and feels like any normal tee, perhaps even softer. So soft, in fact, that it’s hard to believe it’s made from 14 recycled plastic water bottles.

For the hip, green consumer, transforming trash into something wearable and saving it from a landfill can be thrilling. “They have been a hit,” says Lorie DelMundo, public-relations and events coordinator at Brooklyn Industries. Unfortunately, at the end of their life, these polyester garments made from bottles can’t be tossed in with regular plastic recycling.

It’s a problem that Rethink Fabrics, the Seattle-based manufacturer of Brooklyn’s recycled bottle T-shirts, is trying to work out. By spinning the bottles into a type of polyester, Rethink and companies such as Patagonia (which sells recycled polyester fleece) move plastic from landfills into closets.

To truly keep bottles out of landfills and oceans, Rethink is developing a program with national retailers, which it hopes to launch next year, to collect the “plastic shirts” and recycle them into new shirts. In case you were wondering, the shirts can’t be turned back into plastic bottles due to health and safety regulations on recycled plastics in food packaging, says Stacy Flynn, global director of sustainable development for Rethink.

Americans threw out 8.9 million tons of nondurable textiles in 2010, estimates the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Just 14 percent of clothing, footwear, and other textile products were recovered for recycling, and less than 30 percent of plastic bottles in the U.S. were recycled.

“All [our] garments are engineered to be garment recycled at the end of their life, but the technology to reclaim the garments has not been fully developed,” says Flynn. “We need to ensure that garments get back into the supply chain.”

The company expects to make 500,000 to 750,000 units this year, says Chief Executive Anne Sodemann.

Rethink uses clear plastic bottles that are crushed into flakes, which are converted into pellets and spun into polyester yarn. The yarn, made in the U.S., is sent to Guatemala to be knit, dyed, and sewn into garments that make their way back to a distribution center in the U.S. “We’re involved all the way up, starting at the creation of the yarn,” says Flynn.

To be recyclable, garments must be 100 percent polyester (virgin or recycled), including stitching and tags, and any printing must be water-based or heat-transfer print. Shirts that are not 100 percent polyester or that have plastisol designs can be problematic for the equipment and can’t be recycled.

Andrew Dent, vice president of materials and library research at consultancy Material ConneXion, says because anything that gets recycled must be the same material, clothing must be clearly marked. Any contamination would cause problems. “It would be great if it could happen, but it’s a tough thing to do,” he says.

Whether polyester is a sustainable fabric is also debatable since it can take hundreds of years to decompose. “Nylon and polyester are made from petrochemicals, which are very polluting to the environment, causing global warming. They are also non-biodegradable, which means they don’t break down easily and so are difficult to dispose of,” according to the Ethical Fashion Forum, a nonprofit in London.

Then why produce more fabric that’s hard to get rid of? Two reasons: Flynn says making recycled polyester uses less water than both virgin polyester and cotton. Also, the overarching goal is to keep bottles out of oceans and landfills, especially from areas that don’t recycle plastic.