Blog ||| - Why is recycled PET not the solution for the textile industry

Clothing brands advertise more and more with it: clothing made from recycled material[1]. My first question - as a critical textile nerd - is then always: "what recycled material?". In many cases, the clothing consists of recycled polyethylene terephthalate, also known as rPet[2]. rPet clothing is made from recycled plastic bottles (and therefore not from recycled polyester clothing). At first you may think, "what a good thing that those bottles are reused", but there are a good number of reasons why it is not the big recyclable-eureka moment for the textile industry after all.

(r)PET has been the friend and foe of the textile industry for some time. It is a cheap raw material for clothing or interior fabrics[3], easy to process and almost indestructible. The indestructibility is also precisely the problem; with PET it takes about 70 - 450 years to decompose in the environment (compared to cotton it takes about 1-5 months and nylon clothing about 30-40 years)[4]. Recycling plastic bottles (rPET) in clothing is called "open-loop" recycling. The used bottle is ground into small granules, then melted into a very thin string, then processed into yarn, knitted or woven and possibly discoloured somewhere in the process and coloured again in the desired fashion colour. This is then used to make a garment that you as a consumer can buy in the shop. You wear the garment, eventually remove it and throw it in a textile waste bin in your neighbourhood. If the garment cannot be sold on the second-hand market, it may still end up in a landfill in another country[5] (in the Netherlands, dumping textile waste is forbidden). This is where your rPET T-shirt can lie for about 70 - 450 years before it is decomposed. In addition, the rPET garment also leaks microplastics and other toxic substances into the environment[6] [7] [8]. Microplastics are tiny plastic fibres that cause major problems for soil and water quality and the animals that live on that land or in that water[9]. This all isn’t so good.

But unfortunately, that is not all. In Europe, only 58% of all plastic bottles are currently recycled into rPet and there is not enough rPet available for recycling into new plastic bottles[10]. So there is already a great demand for rPet from the bottle industry. But since an increasing number of clothing brands are using rPet (last year about three quarters of all the rPet that was available annually worldwide) there is not enough rPet available on the worldwide market for the bottle industry itself[11].

Of course it is good that the clothing industry is working with recycled materials and is using rPet instead of new, virgin Pet. However, clothing brands think they have the solution with rPet, forgetting the waste they indirectly create themselves; the textile waste. The best solution remains "closed-loop" recycling. Recycling textile waste into new textiles, as we do at Wolkat. In this way, every industry, the plastics and textile industry, deals with its own waste and a circular business model can be created. 












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Kimberley van der Wal
Business Development

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