Recycling Plastic Into Clothing Isn’t Going To Cut It.

Lydia Dupree
5 min readJun 23, 2021

Recycled plastic is still plastic.

Plastic Production

Synthetic fibers make up ~63% of the world’s production of fibers, with ~52% of the world’s fiber production being polyester (1).

Figure 1. Global Fiber Production in 2019 (1)

There are various ways to develop polyester, the majority of which is derived from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) production. PET is a thermoplastic polymer (read: plastic) made from crude oil (a nonrenewable fossil fuel). ~60% of PET production goes toward fiber production, as compared to ~30% that is used in the development of plastic water bottles (2). (Side note: polyester is not the only synthetic fiber made from plastic; others in this category include nylon, acrylic, lycra, “vegan” leather — basically all synthetic fibers.)

A recent trend in the fashion industry is to recycle the latter 30% into clothing, which initially sounds like an attractive form of sustainability. Except for one tiny detail manufacturers forget to disclose — processing plastic into clothing is a highly toxic process, exposing numerous chemicals to consumers, garment workers, and the environment alike.

Health Implications

PET Production

The main catalyst in PET production and recycling is antimony trioxide, a probable carcinogen (3) and possible endocrine disruptor (mimic or interfere with the body’s hormones) (4). These toxins can potentially impact fertility (in both women and men), neurodevelopment and glucose metabolism, disrupt thyroid function, and increase risk of cancer (5). In addition, studies have shown that even at low temperatures the antimony from PET can seep out from clothing into the skin via saliva or sweat (6). As skin is our largest organ, anything leaching from our clothing can be absorbed and affect our body’s natural functions.

In addition, recycled PET water bottles can be mixed in with other plastic items that are made of phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA), both of which are endocrine disruptors. In addition, BPA can affect human development (7) and increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, amongst other complications, depending on the amount of exposure (8).

So every time you wear your cute matching set while working out, or lounge in your polyester pj’s while working from home, you are increasing your risk of exposure to harmful carcinogens. (p.s. This isn’t an excuse to not workout, this means we need better clothing options!)

Microfibers

The breakdown of plastics (both virgin and recycled) into fibers releases microplastics into the air, where garment workers can inhale these microfibers, leading to coughing, breathlessness, and reduced lung capacity (9). In addition, microfibers are released every time we wear a piece of polyester clothing. They travel through our airways, which can result in the same negative respiratory effects as endured by garment workers.

Beyond the body

Not only that, but microfibers are released every time we wash polyester clothing. They travel into the water system, ending up in our oceans, where they are then absorbed and consumed by the fish and plants we and other animals eat, causing health complications for the whole planet. Finally, PET is not biodegradable, so it will last in the environment essentially forever (4).

Where do we go from here?

Brand transparency

Now that we are all ready to ditch our polyester pieces (or maybe that’s just me), we have to remember that knowledge and awareness are the catalysts in making change. We as consumers control the fashion market with our purchases. Looking for transparency from the brands we love is the best way to hold them accountable and show that we want clothing that is beneficial to our body and our world. This should not mean sacrificing style, this means being more creative with the earth given resources we have. Look into companies that offer sustainability reporting (no company that is helping the world will hide their impact!) and ask questions to trusted sustainability reporters to make conscious decisions while shopping.

Alternate resources

The earth is full of natural elements perfect for fiber production (think: cotton, silk, linen). Recycling is still a good thing, but it’s what we use it for afterwards that really matters. So keep recycled plastic where it belongs ‑ such as in building materials and outdoor furniture. Better to furnish it than to fashion it.

If I haven’t convinced you yet, let me leave you with this final thought: Why should we continue to use a material that is harmful, when our world is full of alternate, regenerative possibilities? The aim should not be to reintroduce toxicity into our world for the sake of simplicity, but rather look for other natural substances that can better serve the purpose. Think of recycling plastic in fashion like a bad relationship you keep going back to until you realize, isn’t it time to find someone new?

p.s. here are a few brands to shop from that use all-natural fibers ~

References:

  1. Textile Exchange. Preferred Fiber & Materials Market Report 2020. https://textileexchange.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Textile-Exchange_Preferred-Fiber-Material-Market-Report_2020.pdf Accessed June 18, 2021.
  2. O Ecotextiles (and Two Sisters Ecotextiles). Antimony in fabrics. https://oecotextiles.blog/2013/02/06/antimony‑in‑fabrics/ Accessed May 01, 2021.
  3. Saerens A, Ghosh M, Verdonck J, Godderis L. Risk of Cancer for Workers Exposed to Antimony Compounds: A Systematic Review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019;16(22):4474. Published 2019 Nov 14. doi:10.3390/ijerph16224474. Accessed May 01, 2021.
  4. Made Safe. #ChemicalCallout: Polyethylene terephthalate (PET OR PETE). https://www.madesafe.org/chemicalcallout‑polyethylene‑terephthalate‑pet‑or‑pete/ Accessed May 01, 2021.
  5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Endocrine Disruptors. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/endocrine/index.cfm. Accessed June 18, 2021.
  6. Rovira J, Nadal M, Schuhmacher M, Domingo JL. Trace elements in skin-contact clothes and migration to artificial sweat: Risk assessment of human dermal exposure. Textile Research Journal. 2017;87(6):726–738. doi:10.1177/0040517516639816. Accessed June 18, 2021.
  7. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020). Bisphenol A (BPA). National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/sya-bpa/index.cfm. Accessed June 20, 2021.
  8. Healthline. What Is BPA and Why Is It Bad for You? https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/what-is-bpa Accessed June 20, 2021.
  9. Johnny Gasperi, Stephanie L. Wright, Rachid Dris, France Collard, Corinne Mandin, Mohamed Guerrouache, Valérie Langlois, Frank J. Kelly, Bruno Tassin, Microplastics in air: Are we breathing it in?, Current Opinion in Environmental Science & Health, Volume 1, 2018, Pages 1–5, ISSN 2468–5844, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.coesh.2017.10.002.
    (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S246858441730019). Accessed June 20, 2021.

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Lydia Dupree

Biochemist curating a world of wellness. Undress the science @ lydiadupree.com