Nice Plastic Bottle You’re Wearing

Recycling at Adat Chaverim is supported by Social Action.

Well, good for you! You put your empty Mountain Dew bottle into the recycling bin when you were done, and you didn’t chuck it into the trash. Instead of throwing away those jeans that no longer fit because your mom makes really good lasagna they shrunk in the dryer, you brought them in to the second-hand store to see if they could be resold.

You recycle. That’s good. Because according to a statistic from 2010, people in the United States alone toss 2.5 million plastic bottles into the trash every hour. According to another statistic, we throw out enough used fabric to average out to about 70 pounds of textile waste per person every year.

So, you recycle. You try not to add to the junk that’s piling up in our landfills.

And after you discard your rubbish, you don’t think about it ever again.

But the items that you and I recycle end up, well, reincarnated in a way, not because they undergo a serious transformation, but because they can be made into new materials through processes that are interesting to know more about. Recycling is about more than just rubber being made into more rubber. In particular, recycling gives manufacturers innovative ways to approach comfortable, durable fabric, including the fabric we use in some of our promotional items at Quality Logo Products®.

Cotton

Recycled cotton comes from a number of sources, and what it’s recycled into depends a lot on what the original fabric item was and how much wear and tear it saw.

Cotton, like paper, is made from plant fibers that eventually break down after being subjected to stress. Anyone who’s ever gotten a hole in the heel of a sock knows that cotton gets thinner with time. Because of this, very little of the cotton clothing that gets recycled is in the kind of condition that’s good enough for making more clothing. Garment-to-garment recycling has yet to become a regular industry practice. The odds that you’re wearing a t-shirt made from someone else’s raggedy underwear remain wonderfully, blissfully slim.

So what happens to those clothes that are too worn down for a second-hand store to use?

Lucky for us, they can still be recycled. The process of downcycling involves separating old cotton items by color and type, sending them through machines that tear them to pieces, and then sending those pieces through more machines that separate them into fibers. The fibers then get cleaned and blended with cotton that’s recently harvested, never before used, to make extra-strong cotton blends that are great for more industrial items, like rags, carpet, insulation, durable tote bags, even lanyards that can really hang in there.

And just so you know, if you’ve ever seen a t-shirt that claims to be made from recycled cotton, it’s not false advertising. The downcycling process described above is especially important for cotton from items that people have used—what’s called “post-consumer waste.” Recycled cotton clothing uses pre-consumer, or post-industrial waste, fancy names for fabric scraps taken from the factory floor and repurposed.

Of course, it makes sense that fabric can be recycled into fabric. It gets a little more interesting when you consider the other industrial castoffs that recycled fabric can include.

Plastic and Polyester
I don’t know about you, but I’m sure that I have a ton of free giveaway tote bags that I’m supposed to bring with me to the store to bag my groceries, but that I sometimes forget in the pantry or the back seat of the car.

When I do remember to bring my bags, as much as I like the quality of cotton totes, I find that I prefer shiny, sturdy plastic totes for standing up to any condensation that might end up on the food packages. It seems that marketers understand my preference, too—most of the totes I’ve received as giveaways are made from a smooth, laminated plastic that offers all of plastic’s strength but still folds up small enough to fall between my car seats.

For a long time, I wondered how manufacturers were able to make plastic that behaves like fabric, or fabric that has all of plastic’s wonderful qualities. You can imagine my delight when I learned how much of it depends on using people’s trash.

Most of the plastic beverage bottles we drink from come marked with the number “1” inside of the triangular symbol for recycling, along with the abbreviation “PET” or “PETE” below it. Both of those abbreviations stand for polyethylene terephthalate, also called polyethylene terephthalate ester. We prefer to call it PET.

Before I completely give up on using that full name, though, take a look at it one more time: polyethylene terephthalate ester. You know what that name gets shortened into? Polyester.

There you go. The containers that hold your Gatorade are made from the same material that makes up your pants.

Fabric manufacturers realized this and found a way to put all of those discarded bottles to good use. To make recycled polyester, they clean and sort bottles and place them into a machine that chops and grinds them into small bits. The bits then get melted, and the softened plastic gets squeezed through a plate that has a number of tiny holes in it, a bit like the old Play-Doh Fun Factory. The plastic comes outs in thin filaments that are spun on large metal rollers, forming a yarn that’s ready to weave into recycled polyester.

Not all polyester is recycled. Some of it comes straight from never-before-used factory-made plastic. But recycled polyester comes largely from repurposed PET bottles. The amount of processing, all of that spinning and weaving, determines the quality of the fabric, which is why your plastic totes don’t feel the same as your dress shirts. Sometimes, PET even gets processed into materials that you never might have guessed are plastic.

Fleece and Felt
Years and years ago, we had only animals to thank for the soft fabrics we love for keeping us warm, like wool. The animals didn’t seem to have much to say in response to our gratitude, but we appreciated them anyway.

Wool had its drawbacks, however. It itched, it was in finite supply, and it got a little stinky whenever anyone spilled water on it. A less fragrant alternative arose in the years after World War II, while a company called Malden Mills Industries was experimenting with new uses for all of the equipment in its factories that had been producing military uniforms.

Like other manufacturers, Malden Mills had begun incorporating plastics into its fabrics, as this innovation was quite the rage in the textile industry during the mid-1900s. In the factory, workers discovered that brushing polyester with a stiff-bristled brush had an interesting effect: it broke the tiny loops of plastic yarn that are woven together to form each swatch of polyester.

Instead of destroying the fabric, however, this only exposed the fibers, which puffed up and fluffed up, becoming a softer, thicker material that provides better insulation than plain polyester. Lo, synthetic fleece was born.

Because fleece was made from polyester, and polyester could be made from recycled plastic, manufacturers deduced that fleece could be made from recycled plastic as well.
Like fleece, felt (fleece’s less poofy cousin) also experienced a rebirth during the textile revolution of the mid-twentieth century. Although felt traditionally had been made by pressing wool fibers together, manufacturers discovered that recycled acrylic and polyester fibers worked just as well.

So the next time you find yourself wearing those jeans or warm fleece socks you’re going to have to recycle eventually (seriously, if that hole in the knee or heel gets any bigger, you might have to let them go), pat yourself on the back. You’re in a prime position to contribute to the industry.

You’ll be supporting innovation.

You’ll also be helping the environment by keeping waste out of landfills.

Do you use products made from recycled materials? Know any other facts  about recycled fabric?