The fashion industry has long been preoccupied with all things synthetic. Man-made materials like polyester, nylon, rayon, acrylic, spandex and neoprene have been used to make our clothes for the last 80 years. These fabrics became popular with both manufacturers and consumers through the industrialisation of fashion production; they were cheaper to produce with than natural alternatives and quickly became synonymous with convenience and innovation. Most of us were sold on the promises of fewer wrinkles, durability, stain and water resistance — in a nutshell, ‘plastic’ clothing proved easier to manage than those made from cotton or linen.
But as the saying goes, too much of a good thing can be bad for you. Only long after these fabrics became mainstream did the world come to notice their devastating effects. Being non-biodegradable, synthetic materials clog up landfills and accumulate in our oceans just like single-use plastics. And there’s a lot of it out there! As it stands, polyester, the king of synthetic fabrics, makes up 55% of the global fibre market because of its low production cost and accessibility.
The crux is, when it comes to practicality and design, some garments still need synthetic materials. From winter to activewear, synthetic fabrics can add durability and certain key properties, like being water repellent. But that certainly doesn’t mean brands need to continue producing ‘new’ polyester or nylon.
The rise of recycled synthetics
With heightened awareness of the role fashion plays in the climate crisis, the last few years have seen both luxury and fast-fashion brands pledge to make more products using recycled synthetic fabrics—or for certain capsule collections—instead. H&M’s ‘Conscious Collection’ has created clothes using polyester made from recycled PET bottles. Prada partnered with textile producer Aquafil to produce a range of products, including bags, made from recycled nylon.
Recycling synthetic fabrics also uses 35 to 50% less energy and generates 79% fewer carbon emissions than using virgin synthetics. From pre-production polyester waste to plastic bottles fished out of the ocean, multiple synthetic fibres can be broken down and given a new life as rPET (recycled polyester), ECONYL® (recycled nylon), or Spanflex (recycled spandex).
Today, a wide range of synthetic materials can be recycled into fabric, like the following:
- By-products of production from fashion or other industries such as automotive or furniture, used as stuffing in jackets.
- Pre-production waste, where the synthetic fibres that have not been made into fabric.
- Post-production/pre-consumer waste, such as dead stock or off cut fabric, and even unsold clothes.
- Post-consumer waste, such as old garments to donate or recycle. The synthetics can be extracted from the clothes, or if the garments are 100% synthetic, they can directly go into processing.
- Recycling non-fabrics into fabrics such as plastic bottles, fishing nets etc., into polyester yarns.
Brands choosing the circular route
As production techniques for recycled synthetics have improved, more indie brands are choosing to use them in their collections. In Singapore, some activewear companies have taken to using ECONYL regenerated nylon, made from a range of post-consumer waste including abandoned fishing nets, discarded textiles from mills and carpets destined for landfill.
“We chose ECONYL because we found the fabric to be twice as durable as it’s competitors’,” shares Paula Kenneally, founder of UBU, a sustainable swimwear label produced in Bali. “Our theory is the more durable the fabric, the longer it will last in your wardrobe.”
Stephanie Colhag Yeo, the founder of eco-conscious sportswear label Outfyt, believes recycled synthetics play a big part in cleaning up plastic pollution. “Our designs are all made from recycled nylon waste that would otherwise be polluting our oceans or filling up landfills. I love the fact that it has the same features, strength and stretchiness of virgin nylon, but with a much lower environmental cost.”
But recycled fabrics aren’t being used just in sportswear labels; fashion brands have adopted them too. British sustainable fashion label Hide The Label is one of them. “We chose to use GRS certified recycled polyester in our first range as we wanted to help reduce the number of virgin fibres produced” explains Shereen Barrett, the brand’s co-founder. “The quality of recycled polyester has improved. It’s now softer and doesn’t crease as easily, compared to the rough and stiff past versions I’ve sourced.”
Recycled fabrics fashion faux pas
While recycled synthetic fabrics do help brands to make their collections more circular, one of their biggest underlying issues, whether recycled or virgin, is microplastic pollution. Research shows that over 35% of all microplastics released into our world’s oceans are from synthetic textiles. These tiny particles—no longer than five millimetres—make their way into local waterways and (eventually) our oceans from our washing machines when we wash synthetic clothing. So while recycling fabric keeps potentially polluting garments from landfill, it makes little difference to their effect over our oceans.
“If we allow 2% of the microplastics coming from our laundry to reach the ocean, each week in Australia alone it is the equivalent of 7,500 plastic grocery bags”, shares Claire O’Loughlin, an Australian-based researcher on microplastic waste and the founder of Bali-produced sustainable swimwear label Ocean Remedy.
In the journey to circularity, brands need to acknowledge that recycled synthetics can’t rectify this massive environmental issue. Acknowledging the microplastic fight, some labels have taken to educating their customers and communities about the issue on social media or selling Guppyfriend, a washing bag that prevents microplastics from leaving your washing machine (local labels Tallis and Esse sell them online).
Importantly, the onus to prevent microplastic pollution shouldn’t just be on consumers. Overall, we need more research conducted on the impact of microplastics and improvements on our current washing machines. Brands have to create better products that last, with materials that don’t break apart that easily or shed microplastics.
The limitations of recycling
While we should celebrate the thought of fewer plastics in our oceans, recycling has its pitfalls, too. It requires extensive resources, manpower and the right technology. Regenerating synthetic fibres improves on fashion’s pollution problem, but it doesn’t solve it. Here’s why:
Less than 1% of textiles are recycled, and that’s because it’s not that easy (or cheap) of a process. Synthetics can be recycled in two ways – mechanically and chemically. While the former is cheaper, it doesn’t result in high-quality fibres that are as strong as its virgin counterparts. Chemical recycling produces a purer and more consistent quality of plastic, but it is very expensive and resource-intensive. This makes it less accessible, especially to smaller eco-friendly brands. As larger industry players commit to recycling and circular initiatives, we can achieve economies of scale and drive prices down.
What’s more, brands can’t rely on infinite recycling, especially when brands can’t actually recycle all kinds of plastic because they are not all BPA free (aka toxic). Even the strongest of fabrics can’t be recycled infinitely and will eventually break down. Beyond this, we have to stop propagating the belief that everything is disposable just because we can recycle it later.
Also, using recycled synthetics cannot be a brand’s only sustainability effort. If a brand only produces a small percentage of their clothes using recycled fibres, yet doesn’t engage in other sustainable practices, they’re greenwashing. Using strategic marketing to only show part of the story deceives consumers into thinking they’re buying something more eco-friendly. Whether it’s branding PVC leather as ‘vegan’ or even recycling virgin plastic bottles just to say they’re using ‘recycled synthetics’, shoppers should do some research to learn which brands are truly prioritising sustainability before purchasing.
How we design — and buy — must change too
Aside from the synthetic fabrics that have already been incinerated, virtually every piece of plastic that was ever produced, for any purpose, still exists in some shape or form. Since recycling only exists because we throw stuff away, it means there will always be plastics—fibres or others—in our ecosystems that are degrading, slowly releasing toxins into the environment.
To truly make our fashion system circular, two things need to happen. First, designers, brands and producers need to redefine what waste looks like and design with longevity in mind. This means brands should have the end of a product or fibre’s life in mind from the start. This will keep existing products in circulation for longer. It’s time businesses focus on creating a closed-loop cycle first, rather than one that is just about reducing waste.
“Since recycling only exists because we throw stuff away, it means there will always be plastics—fibres or others—in our ecosystems that are degrading, slowly releasing toxins into the environment.”
Secondly, we have to be more thoughtful when it comes to buying quality and taking care of what we have. The goal is to ultimately throw less stuff away. “There’s also alternative ways we can care for our clothes too. Just leaving slightly worn clothes in the sun (treated by UV light) is a great alternative to regular washes. Spot cleaning or airing instead of washing after single wears, which you shouldn’t need to do in the first place!” Claire shares. As it stands, the average person wears their clothes 7 times before throwing them away. Additionally, over half of the clothes made are synthetic. So we can speculate how much more plastic the industry is sending to landfills.
Sustainability from the get-go
The use of recycled synthetics is a critical step forward for the fashion industry in the fight against fabric waste. But all of us, brands and consumers, should be wary that they still have environmental consequences. There is still an ocean of questions about the effect microplastics have on our environment and bodies. Just a month ago, researchers found microplastics in unborn babies’ placentas!
Ultimately, to get serious about fashion’s plastic problem, the industry has to look beyond recycling and move away from being a waste-based model. There’s more to it than approaching circularity through advanced recycling processes that excuse our growing production and consumption model. Brands should look to avoid waste altogether. Producing in such a closed-loop system where waste is designed out from the start might seem idealistic, but as many small ethical brands have proven, it’s not impossible. Finally, if lawmakers or governments could put more legislative pressure on the industry’s biggest companies and producers, it could help to accelerate robust, meaningful change in the quest for circularity.
With a background in fashion and textiles, Durva is an ardent photographer and advocate of social justice. She enjoys writing about fashion, socio-political issues within sustainability and partakes in the occasional 'who wore it better' banter on Diet Prada.