a bottle of water polluting the sea

Recycled Fabrics Are The New Black, But Are They Sustainable?

In today’s day and age, it is essential to be mindful of the environment. One way to do that is by recycling fabrics, or other waste, into fabrics. There are many options on the market, but mainly we can find recycled polyester, cotton, nylon, and wool. All these recycled fabrics have different benefits when used in clothing or other products.

Thanks to recycled materials, the amount of energy, water, and dye use is reduced from using a product that has already been processed. The savings are achieved by offsetting the production of new materials.

Companies such as Columbia, The North Face, Patagonia, and many others encourage consumers to bring in old clothing to be repurposed.

In this blog post, I will detail what each type of recycled fabric entails and what are the advantages and challenges they pose in terms of sustainability so you can make an informed decision about your purchases.

Recycled polyester

Recycled polyester, or rPET, is usually recycled from plastic bottles, such as ones that contain water or soda. Recycled polyester fabric is soft to the touch but durable and robust, making this a popular option for clothing or other products.

To produce rPET fabric, the polymer is mechanically shredded into confetti-like pieces. These are then converted to pellets, melted, and spun into new yarn.

recycled poliester fabric is made from plastic bottles
Recycled polyester fabric is normally made from plastic bottles.

Advantages of recycled polyester

  • rPET requires 59% less energy to produce and reduces CO2 emissions by 32%.
  • The process helps combat plastic that is being thrown away in landfills and polluting oceans. It’s possible to make one extra-large T-shirt from 5 recycled bottles.
  • It adds transparency to the supply chain. For example, some manufacturers like REPREVE identify rPET from collection to manufacturing with the use of tags.

Challenges of recycled polyester

  • The recycling process of PET bottles into fabric can only be done once; recycled polyester fabric cannot be recycled into another fabric again. And even if it’s possible under certain circumstances, like with chemical recycling, the quality of the material is inferior, making the garments lower quality than virgin polyester ones. In that sense, recycling only delays the eventual destiny of the plastic into landfills.
  • Fabric-to-fabric recycling is difficult because many garments contain polyester and blend with other materials, making recycling nearly impossible.
  • Recycled polyester does not address the microplastics problem. Both virgin and recycled polyester fabric pollute the environment with microplastics released into the atmosphere every time we wash our clothes.

Even though rPET takes significantly less energy to produce than virgin polyester, more sustainable options like hemp, wool, and organic cotton are still available.

As consumers, we can help by acquiring rPET products that do not require frequent washing, such as bags or shoes—to avoid microplastic pollution—and look for durable goods that can be resold and refurbished to make the most out of them.

While recycled polyester is better than virgin one, it’s still not the most sustainable material, as it does not help with circularity. Therefore we should use and consume it carefully.

Recycled nylon

Recycled nylon is sourced from pre and post-consumer waste, such as finishing nets, which means that recycled nylon can be good for cleansing the ocean of unwanted material and prevent adding more to it. Recycling also saves energy spent on manufacturing new virgin nylon.

Recycling nylon usually involves a process called hydrolysis. Hydrolysis is when water and chemicals like sodium hydroxide and sulphuric acid break down the cell structure of the fabric on a molecular level to then rebuild it into recycled nylons.

recycled nylon is normally made from fishnets
Most of the recycled nylon fabric is made from waste, especially fishnets.

Advantages of recycled nylon

Challenges of recycled nylon

  • Nylon cannot tolerate high temperatures, so the source materials have to be thoroughly cleaned before recycling to avoid organic contaminants remaining alive.
  • Creating recycled nylon yarn is very similar to creating its virgin counterpart. Even if it has less impact on the environment, it still releases toxic substances and carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
  • We must also remember that nylon is made from fossil fuels and, therefore, it is not biodegradable. And so, even if the fabric was recycled, it could end up as waste or in landfills polluting, just like traditional nylon.

We have learned that recycled yarn is made from existing products that would otherwise pollute our oceans and landfills. Therefore, recycling nylon is the best way to achieve circularity and minimize the environmental impacts of new production.

To address nylon’s inherent challenges, initiatives such as project EFFECTIVE try to find alternatives for plastics. Nylon is a great candidate to be substituted by bio-materials.

Combined, these innovations (recycling and biomaterials) offer viable solutions to the nylon industry’s challenges and provide opportunities for more environmentally friendly materials.

ECONYL is the name brand for one of the most advanced recycled nylon. If you want to learn more about it, you can check out our article, which explains it in detail.

Recycled cotton

The recycled cotton process starts with natural textiles such as shirts or jeans being broken down into raw materials in a textile recycling factory. This recycled cotton is then spun back into yarn and fibers, often used to make new garments or other textiles.

recycled cotton is made from cotton pieces
Recycled cotton is made from cotton items, such as jeans or t-shirts.

Advantages of recycled cotton

  • Recycling cotton means that no new cotton plants need to be harvested, vastly reducing water and contaminants released into the environment. 
  • Even though quality may not be up to par with traditional cotton, recycled cotton can find a new life in countless applications, including those typically relegated to lower-quality materials like insulation, mop heads, and stuffing.

Challenges of recycled cotton

  • Cotton is most commonly mixed with polyester fibers during the recycling process. The mixing of materials may introduce difficulties in recycling the material again.
  • One drawback of recycled fibers is that they are never as good quality as the original fiber. Specifically, this will mean a lower ratio of long fibers and less uniformity in length, which can limit the end-use application.
  • Recycled cotton is often blended with virgin cotton to improve yarn strengths. Generally, no more than 30% recycled content is used in the finished fabric or product.
  • Recycled yarn can cost more than standard cotton and may be too expensive or unrealistic for some uses.

Even though it’s not ideal for circularity, when you combine recycled cotton and recycled polyester, the opportunity for a substantial reduction in environmental impact is enormous. For example, Patagonia’s Responsibili-tee T-shirt uses 63 gallons of water less when compared to those manufactured using traditional yarns, partly because no new cotton had to be harvested.

Recycled wool

Natural, renewable, and biodegradable, wool is the most reused and recyclable fiber around the planet. Slow fashion designers choose to work with this one of the world’s oldest natural fibers to create many fashionable pieces.

The first fabric recycled was wool. In the mid 19th century, its popularity grew in North America and Europe, where rationing occurred during WWII.

RELATED ARTICLE: Slow Fashion: 5 Actions You Can Take Today To Join The Movement

Wool is a natural fiber with considerable long-term sustainability. Wool products are made of three primary materials: natural wool, wool dye, and wax or resin to make the fabric waterproof. As these materials are often reused for several applications before they need to be replaced, wool garments can stay in circulation for some time, making them an environmentally-friendly choice.

Producing wool, however, requires a vast amount of resources like land, water, and dyes to color the finished product. We use recycled wool to extend the lifespan of fiber that has already been produced.

recycled wool
Recycled wool is the oldest recycled fiber used in the world.

Advantages of recycled wool

  • With the aid of modern-day quality controls, the wool goes through a meticulous sorting process into color groups before being shredded. The sorting process allows selecting and blending colors of raw wool fabrics to the desired hue, which prevents the need for a dyeing process. The method also uses significantly less energy than what is necessary to produce new textiles.

Challenges of recycled wool

  • The information currently available about the challenges of recycling wool are minimal. Still, it is possible to assume that labor-intensive work and knowledge of how to do so are necessary.

Final thoughts

I hope you enjoyed this article! As you can see, recycled materials are a more sustainable option than traditional ones. However, they cannot completely solve the environmental issues we face related to fashion over-consumption. Therefore, they are not a green light to mindlessly buy more clothes because they are labeled as recycled.

If you would like to learn about plant-based fabric options, read my article on how these new materials may help address some of our sustainability challenges in the future.