How It's Made:
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Is there a more literal case of one man’s trash being another man’s treasure than that of recycled polyester? We think not. This durable, versatile fabric gets its name from the process of recycling used plastic into an entirely new, wearable material. You’ve probably seen the words “recycled polyester” printed on the labels of everything from pants to shirts to bags. Now, the waste-diverting fabric is popping up pretty much everywhere. So how exactly do all those rigid bottles in your recycling bin transform into a flexible, feel-good fabric? Read on as we walk through all the ins and outs of recycled polyester.
Let’s start off with polyester, one of fashion’s favorite materials. Polyester is popular because it resists stretch and wrinkles, provides flexibility and comfort, doesn’t shrink, and is easy to wash and wear. It’s easily blended with cotton and wool and can pack serious durability and weather resistance. However, these qualities come with a significant cost. Polyester is not biodegradable. It’s made from crude oil, which tops the charts as the most polluting industry in the world. Similarly, polyester dyes are far from environmentally friendly—in fact, they’re toxic to humans. Lastly, the process of creating polyester is energy-intensive and requires large quantities of water.
Like traditional polyester, recycled polyester is a man-made fabric produced from synthetic fibers. However, instead of utilizing new materials to craft the fabric, recycled polyester makes use of existing plastic. In many cases, those existing plastics are your old water bottles, which are then processed and transformed into products that carry the same characteristics of virgin polyester. Basically, recycled poly gives you the same end use but skips the polluting, energy and water-intensive process of starting from scratch. We like it so much, it shows up in nearly all of our product categories—you’ll find it in our water resistant board shorts, rip resistant bags, durable EveryDay Reusables and a host of other items.
The process is actually pretty simple. Recycled polyester is made by breaking down used plastic into small, thin chips, which are processed and eventually spun into yarn. Processes vary by specific fabrication, so let’s focus on the recycled polyester used in our Ridgeline Bag collection, Repreve, which is based in North Carolina. Manufacturing this ultra-durable fiber begins with truckloads of plastic bottles —but just the clear ones, which provide a neutral base for applying dyes. Let’s take a deeper look into what happens next.
Courtesy of Repreve
Recycled polyester makes use of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) waste, which is made up of consumer plastics like soda and waters. These bottles are usually collected locally, then sorted, compacted and baled for reuse.
Collected PET bottles are sorted by color, removed of their labels and separated from other materials like paper and aluminum. They are then ground into flakes, which are washed with detergents to remove any contaminants.
In what’s called “chemical recycling”, the PET flakes are depolymerized, which means that they are broken down to the base-chemical molecule.
The molten PET polymer is then made into chips and spun into a fiber, which often passes through a crimping machine to create a fluffy, wooly texture.
At this point, the production process is the same as it is for virgin polyester —the spun fiber can either be knit or woven into a textile.
By making use of plastic waste instead of using virgin materials, recycled polyester dramatically lowers its environmental impact versus traditional polyester. Some benefits of recycled polyester:
A reusable straw kit?
Two plastic bottles.
A graphic t-shirt?
About five plastic bottles.
You’ve probably heard about microfibers, tiny threads of synthetic material that shed from fabric. Microfibers are invisible to the naked eye (they’re even smaller than microbeads, which were banned in 2015), but they are an increasingly large problem in our waterways. They are so small that they go right through filters and wastewater plants and into the ocean. Once there, they end up in the stomachs of marine life, with the potential to poison the entire food chain. These fibers are typically shed in the washing machine; one study showed that a polyester fleece jacket can shed 100,000 fibers, or 1.7 grams with every wash. Recycled polyester does not fix this problem. While re-engineering our modern fabrics is the best solution to the microfiber problem, we do have ways to decrease the impact of microfibers.
The Guppy Friend, developed by a German nonprofit, is a bag that protects your clothes, by reducing fiber shedding, and the oceans, by filtering the fibers that do break and making sure they don’t enter the water stream. It’s easy to use —you just stick your synthetic clothing in the bag before placing it in the washing machine. Best (or worst) of all, by filtering out the microfibers, the Guppy Friend gives you a visual of how many plastic fibers go straight into our oceans with every wash cycle.
With nearly 654,740 tons of clothing being sent to the landfill every year, it’s clear that recycling textiles is becoming increasingly necessary. And our recycling technology is getting better and better. Recycled polyester is a soft yet tough fabric that's a more sustainable option than its conventional counterpart, but maintains all the properties that made polyester so popular since its inception in the ‘40s. From saving water bottles from a life in a landfill to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it’s a go-to for goods that require high performance durability. Take a look at the finished products with some of our favorite recycled polyester picks below.