Fashion labels across the world, including G-Star Raw, H&M, Gucci, Adidas and North Face, are using fabric made from recycled plastic to create new items of clothes.

Both this year’s World Environment Day and World Oceans Day drew our attention to the scourge of plastic pollution last week. The UN reports that “Eight million tonnes of plastic per year ends up in the ocean, wreaking havoc on wildlife, fisheries and tourism”. It costs the lives of 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals per year. And if that’s not bad enough, how about “Fish eat plastic, and we eat the fish”?

Reducing our use of plastic and the better management of waste are key to turning the tide on plastic pollution. And, although there are concerns about the microfibers – tiny plastic fibres – released during the washing of the new generation of synthetic fibres into rivers and oceans, the thinking for now is that keeping plastic bottles in the circular economy is better for the planet than if they had not been upcycled.

A new Cape Town-based company, In the Green* makes T-shirts from recycled plastic water bottles. Co-founder Stefan says, “If you have to choose to leave a bottle in the ocean or take it out and do something with it, I would choose the latter. Clothes shouldn’t be made from plastic but what do we do with the current plastic in the world?” Stefan’s partner Roxana says, “It’s a priority to find either sustainable alternatives for plastic or to find ways to recycle it and re-introduce it into our lives in a sustainable way.”

Creating the recycled fabric is complex. There isn’t one place that produces it in South Africa. Stefan and Roxana use different suppliers and manufacturers, all South African. “The first step is to collect the plastic, clean it, cut it into flakes which are melted. They undergo a de-polymerisation/re-polymerisation process after which they are compressed into pellets. These pellets are then taken to a different plant, melted and extruded to make yarn, which is taken to a mill to be woven into the fabric,” says Roxana.

The number of plastic bottles that are used to produce one T-Shirt varies. It depends on factors such as the size of the item, the density of the fabric and whether it’s mixed with cotton. “On average we use between 5 to 12 plastic bottles per T-Shirt,” says Roxana.

Whilst it’s good to keep plastic bottles out of the oceans and out of landfills, we should take care to reduce the release of plastic microfibres. The UK-based Hubbub is encouraging people to:

Choose clothes which are more durable, you’ll get more wears from and which won’t end up in the bin. Clothes in landfills over time can break down into microplastics which can find their way into eco systems and often our oceans too.

Wash clothes only when needed. Microfibres are released in the wash so if you can get another wear out of something, let it air instead.

Wash clothes at a lower temperature(30 degrees C). This will prevent them from wearing faster which can lead to more microfibre release.

Use a full load and wash on a shorter, gentler cycle; this reduces friction on your clothes which can cause microfibres to shred and clothes to wear.

Avoid the tumble dryer, they may wear your clothes out faster, increasing the likelihood of microfibre release on the next wash. Your clothes will stay in shape for longer too.


Picture credits: Bekah Vogel 

Update: Since this article was published, Into The Green has closed. Roxanne and Stefan have referred us to a colleague for a similar offering