At Greenpop’s Reforest Fest last year, the crew wore T-shirts made from recycled plastic bottles. You’re thinking “school design project”. Or, that it is a T-shirt made from clear plastic scales hot-glued together. Nope. These T-shirts look, feel and behave like normal cotton or polyester. They were sponsored by PETCO, a local association created to represent the “effort to self-regulate post-consumer polyethylene terephthalate recycling” in the PET plastic industry.

Waste represents an opportunity for the innovation of new sustainable materials, and for industries to embrace a circular economy. In contrast to the make-use-dispose linear economy, the circular economy is designed to keep resources in flow for as long as possible (ideally continuously), at their maximum value. 

In the textile industry, there are generally two types of recycling using either pre-consumer and post-consumer waste. Fibre2Fashion defines the difference between the two as pre-consumer waste being that which is obtained during the manufacturing process like stitching, cutting or weaving, while post-consumer waste comes from apparels and home textile products. When these products have reached the end of their “useful” lives they become post-consumer waste.

Post-consumer waste

You can think of the recycling of post-consumer waste as a Pheonix of sorts or maybe a Frankenstein’s monster: born again from discarded wast. Post-consumer waste in the garment industry is not limited to clothes and textiles themselves, but also to their packaging and tags. Additionally, other types of post-consumer waste can find its way into the industry, ‘born again’ as textiles, fittings, finishes, packaging and more.

For example, PET Plastic is “turned into many new and useful products, like fibre-fill for duvets and pillows” (and T-shirts). Many other non-textile waste streams can be diverted through recycling schemes into materials to be used in the industry.

Wouldn’t it be ideal if we were not so overwhelmed by linear, single-use consumption?

At home, you can turn post-consumer waste into a garment. One craft-friendly example is T-shirt yarn.  Cut stretch garments (like cotton T-shirts) into strips to create a knit-able, weave-able, crochet-able ‘yarn’. Or use non-garment textiles (bedding, curtains, and even couches – see the video below) into clothing items. Many thrifty home-sewers will already know this trick as these textiles can be found cheaply at thrift-stores or in relatives’ cupboards. Typically, the inclusion of post-consumer materials is showcased in a novel way to build awareness around the potential of these materials, but also to draw attention to the unfortunate need for such innovation in the first place.  Wouldn’t it be ideal if we were not so overwhelmed by linear, single-use consumption and waste so as to need these kinds of products?

Pre-consumer waste

Pre-consumer waste is the material that never makes it into the finished garment – off-cuts, roll-ends, overproduction, and rejected prototypes and fabrics. This stream has sparked incredible initiatives from brands and designers themselves to limit or effectively utilise this waste, and prevent it ending up in landfill (although it is worth noting that pre-consumer waste from the garment industry is already a much smaller contributor to landfill than post-consumer waste).

Many other brands do similarly, reworking their own, or others, pre-consumer waste into materials and products

Issey Miyake embraces zero-waste design by incorporating offcuts into other garments. Elvis & Kresse partner with Burberry to cleverly turn their pre-consumer leather offcut waste into beautiful bags, accessories, rugs and wall coverings. Many other brands do similarly, reworking their own, or others, pre-consumer waste into materials and products.

Another way to avoid pre-consumer waste is zero-waste cutting, which minimises waste through clever patterning and utilising selvage edges (the edge of a fabric roll, and a self-finished hem of sorts). Many traditional garments, like kimonos and saris,  use zero-waste patterning to maximise on expensive or precious fabric. Contemporary designers have become increasingly innovative to create exquisite pieces without creating any waste. Other material techniques such as whole-garment knitting or crocheting also minimise on creating waste.

Materials are valuable, and it’s only rational not to waste them during production

Many other industries (like construction for example) can, and do, use pre- and post-consumer materials in their outputs, often without necessarily drawing attention to it. Materials are valuable, and it’s only rational not to waste them during production, or to be able to re-incorporate them at a later stage, rather than buying, producing or extracting new. In our world of increasing resource scarcity and exploding waste, perhaps the solution lies in looking within our existing industries and production for ‘new’ materials.

I know I’ll definitely look twice at the curtain rail next time I’m out thrifting.

Main image: Detail of design by South African sustainable fashion designer Leandi Mulder. Fabrics are made from pre-consumer waste

Image of T-shirt: Cuan Thomas