For our second instalment of the ‘What Is…’ series, we’re turning our attention to the often confusing abbreviations and acronyms that surround the term ‘eco-plastic.’
You’d have to be from the moon not to know that plastic is everywhere. It’s the plague of our modern age. Permeating almost every inch of our planet, from the highest mountains to our deepest oceans. And, since most plastics are non-biodegradable, they last a very very long time. Think thousands of years.
During this time, they can leach toxic chemicals into the earth, which can then make their way into groundwater reserves, endangering both humans and animals. Plastics that do “break down” do so only into smaller pieces of plastic, which are still harmful to the ecosystems they may end up in.
Image courtesy: Recycled plastic mountain | Kedel
It’s a serious, serious problem. A million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute and the number will top half a trillion by 2021, creating an environmental crisis some campaigners predict will be as serious as climate change.
And although some plastics can be recycled, most aren’t (either because they can’t be or because people don’t bother). For example, only around one-quarter of 1% of the more than 7 billion pounds (3.2 billion kilograms) of discarded polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is recycled each year in the U.S., and PVC is one of the world’s most common plastics.
Before you curl into a ball and think there’s no hope, there is. There are incredible brands out there pushing boundaries and debunking the notion that clothes made from recycled materials, in particular recycled plastic, cannot be desirable. The challenge for consumers though, arises when trying to decipher the meaning of the many new acronyms entering our ever evolving cultural vocab.
Let’s start by learning what PET is. This is an abbreviation for the much longer term, polyethylene terephthalate; a polymer of ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid. PET is the most common type of plastic resin. To create virgin PET, producers extract crude oil and natural gas from the earth, process, and heat it to form a molten liquid. They then spin this liquid into fibres to create polyester fabric, or they mould and solidify it into PET plastic containers. It is increasingly used in fashion to anything from high-performance outerwear to stylish swimwear and activewear and more.
Looking at energy, creating a plastic water bottle from 100% recycled content uses 75% less energy than its virgin counterpart. Although some energy and water is still needed to process these plastics into new forms, the amount is significantly less than creating virgin plastics. This translates to less resource extraction, which protects the natural landscapes where oil and natural gas are extracted. This also means that there is less carbon emitted during the creation of new products. One year’s worth of recycling common plastics in the US can create the equivalent energy savings of taking 360,000 cars off the road.
RPET, rPET, Recycled Polyethylene Terephthalate or Recycled PET
RPET is produced by collecting, sorting and recycling PET plastic. The material is refined into flakes that can be then be turned into new products. Using RPET as an alternative to PVC is a huge step forward on the path toward a greener, safer and cleaner future. RPET can be made into such products as blankets, insulation, shoes, super cool swimwear and much more.
Recycled Polyester Fabric
Unlike polyester, recycled polyester uses PET as the raw material. This is the same material that is used in clear plastic water bottles, and recycling it to create the fabric prevents it from going to landfill. Recycled polyester fabric can be used to make products including carpets, leggings, swimwear, t-shirts, and reusable grocery bags.
Image courtesy: Patagonia fleece made with recycled nylon | Reformation
Like polyester, nylon fibre is made from petroleum. A synthetic fibre made of polymers, it doesn’t break down easily and accounts for about 10% of the debris in the ocean. Before nylon entered the market, the primary materials were cotton and wool. This soon changed when the synthetic polymer material was first shown at the 1939 New York World Fair where it was used for women’s stockings. It quickly flooded the textile market.
Nylon is not as easy or a cheap material to recycle but some pioneering companies have taken on the challenge. While the re-processing method is not entirely environmentally efficient or sustainable, recycling nylon keeps a huge percentage of petro-chemical waste away from landfill or being incinerated, releasing toxic emissions into our atmosphere. It also uses 27% less natural resources than the production of virgin nylon, reduces greenhouse emissions by 28%, and can be processed over and over again.
Brand name for recycled nylon. Econyl collects used nylon ocean waste such as used fishing nets, nylon carpets, and industrial plastic waste and turn it into products suitable for fashion, as well as high-tech clothing and sportswear. They estimate that for every 10,000 tonnes of Econyl polymer they make, they save 70 barrels of crude oil, and avoid 57,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions. And this sustainable method of fabric production is winning huge accolades from the fashion industry. Swimwear brands were among the first to invest in the use of Econyl fibres as the majority of their products are made from nylon. By the end of 2014, Adidas had sold more than 750,000 swimwear outfits made entirely from recycled nylon. Others who’ve adopted Econyl include Levi’s jeans and bags by Stella McCartney.
Hyosung, a Korean company, has developed a method for recycling discarded nylon items into a textile grade fibre called Regen. As textile grade yarn is the finest achievable form of the fibre, the recycled material is not inferior to virgin nylon in any way, and can be used for a number of applications.
Image courtesy:Girlfriend Collective Recycled polyester AKA PET
Recycling plastic isn’t a perfect solution, and it doesn’t solve the fact that once plastic is made, it’s here to stay for a very long time. Finding a new life for these already-made products, however, is definitely a step in the right direction.
So continue supporting those innovative, creative brands. When consumers purchase products made with recycled content, they’re sending a message to companies that they value their sustainability efforts. By creating awareness and demand for recycled products, we help solidify recycling programs and recycled goods as valuable pieces in the production process.
That being said, it’s all still plastic, and that has downsides. Have you ever heard of microfibers of microplastics? In its fabric form, polyester and RPET fabrics contain tiny fibres that can cause a big problem. Every time synthetic fabric is washed, hundreds of thousands of these small plastic particles are released into the water. These eventually make their way into places like lakes, rivers, and the ocean. To reduce the impact, try washing your eco-plastic garments as infrequently as possible, opting to air clean whenever possible.