The Rise Of Repurposed Plastics

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29 August 2017 By Kate Hart

The Rise of Repurposed Plastics

The invention of plastics has revolutionised our lives but the constant flow of disposable items infiltrating the environment is having a massive impact on global ecology. NJAL’s Kate Hart muses on turning flotsam into fashion, in the rise of repurposed plastics as choice material for a new wave of design talent and some of the industry’s biggest brands.

Currently, we recycle between just 5 and 10% of the plastics we produce. 50% of which is buried in landfill and much of what’s left is littering the seven seas. Across the globe, approximately eight million tons of plastic is entering our oceans every year. Carried by the tide, this debris is then washed up on shore or amassed in vast, slow moving vortexes and creating floating garbage islands, some twice the size of Texas, in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans. It is not just the visible masses that are an environmental hazard; plastics do not biodegrade but over time are simply broken down by the elements into tiny pieces known as microplastics. These fragments, less than 5mm in size have potentially serious consequences for not just ocean ecosystems but the entire food chain. A study into the effects of microplastics on marine life discovered particles inside the digestive systems of microorganisms such as shrimp and plankton that become more concentrated as they are absorbed up the chain.

Though the long term effects of this is not yet known, it is reasonable to surmise that the health of any organism ingesting quantities of plastic is likely to be impacted. The process of manufacturing new plastics is also a contributing factor, producing C02 emissions and consuming large amounts of water and non-renewable resources such as crude oil. While prevention is better than cure, the need to find alternatives that will curb our dependence on plastic is one that must be urgently addressed. Perhaps in how we tackle the vast amounts of plastic waste pollution is one area where a more immediate solution might be found.

“We need to defend diversity on land and in the sea and we need solutions, and these solutions can only be realized by harnessing the imaginative side of human culture – the arts.” This mission statement comes from conservation organisation Parley for the Oceans sums up the need to tackle the rising tide of plastic by engaging with our innate human instinct for creativity and the creative arts. It would seem to be the ideal arena in which to promote a more sustainable way of living through ideas and initiatives that capture the imagination.

The fashion industry, with its chemical heavy production processes and reliance on ‘fast fashion’ is often cited as a sector that has encouraged the over consumption of mass-produced products fuelling our throwaway society, but the gathering momentum of the ‘slow fashion’ movement and a growing necessity to adopt more sustainable practices is starting to see results. Repurposing waste plastics to create clothing is nothing new, and companies such as Patagonia have been using PET bottles to produce recycled polyester for their outdoorwear since 1993, but over the last few seasons, a new wave of independent labels and big name brands committed to environmental endeavours have emerged with advancements in manufacturing, making it possible for more designers to exploit this limitless supply of source material and transform it into wearable and most importantly, covetable items.

New York based start-up Bionic are one such company that have set about bringing reconstituted plastic fabrics into the mainstream. Their technique for turning flotsam into fashion involves working with organisations such as Parley and Sea Shepherd to recover waste plastic from shoreline and sea before flaking and shredding it into fibres that can be spun into a strong core yarn. Once helixed with cotton, these fibres can be knitted or woven into textiles suitable for garment production. This and other similar methods of manufacturing use less water, oil and energy than producing equivalent materials from scratch, saving vital renewable and non-renewable resources. G-Star’s three consecutive Raw For The Oceans collections have to date, recycled around two million plastic containers and using these fabrics in collaborations with other high profile sportswear brands such as Adidas and O’Neil, not to mention the appointment of Pharrell Williams as Creative Director is enabling these breakthrough yarns to be viewed as a viable alternative to traditional synthetics.

PET bottles and containers are not the only source of plastic pollution. Mounds of scrap tyres are more than just blots on the landscape but also toxic fire hazards and even potential breeding grounds for tropical disease carrying mosquitoes. Notoriously difficult to recycle because of their composition, it is in fact possible for these tyres to be given a more stylish second life. Clothing label Ecoalf break down scrap tyres to powdered form and using a glue-less method of compression, transforming them into flip-flops and sneaker outsoles alongside their range of recycled PET fabrics. Adidas x Parley are also utilising an abundance of nylon fishing nets abandoned at sea or confiscated from illegal poaching vessels in their sartorial reinvention projects.

In 2012, a report by the WSPA estimated that between 57,000 and 135,000 whales and an inestimable number of birds, fish and turtles became entangled in plastic debris each year. By recovering these ‘ghost nets’, the immediate threat to wildlife is reduced while providing the industry with sustainable and high quality nylon fabrics. Finding biodegradable alternatives for purposefully manufactured microbeads, more specifically within the beauty industry is also an area garnering much attention. Primarily used in body scrubs, facial exfoliators and toothpaste, synthetic microbeads too small to be filtered out by conventional water processing plants are adding to the exponential rise in of microplastics in the oceans. Through campaigns such as Beat The Microbead, the number of multinational and independent cosmetics companies pledging to remove microbeads from their products is steadily increasing.

Recent reports by both the UN and the 5 Gyres Institute concluded that better waste management and recycling based on a circular economy, while not solving the problem, would be an important first step in the drive to lessen the impact of microplastics on ocean ecology and that companies must take responsibility for the entire life-cycle of their products. It seems that a growing number of brands concur and are now targeting a more 360-degree approach to business that encompasses both environmental and social responsibility.

Thread International, founded in the aftermath of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, is bringing social mobility to communities affected by poverty and unemployment by converting the island’s over abundance of waste plastic into raw materials. In Haiti and Honduras, approximately 2,700 jobs have been created and more than 300,00 pounds of plastic each month is turned into a finished fabric that can be sold to manufacturers to produce retail-ready product. Danish accessories company Pinqponq work on a ‘closed cycle’ method ensuring that their factories adopt safe and acceptable working conditions for the employees producing their recycled 100% PET bottle backpacks and they use suppliers partnered with the Bluesign system who all work to create zero waste, and activate a fair wage policy across the textile manufacturing industry.

Though great strides are being made it may still be some time before this new technology is able to hit the high street head on. Retailers are doing their bit to promote the use of recycled plastics and raise public awareness with Selfridges Project Ocean, now in its fifth year, addressing a number of threats facing marine life. As part of the 2015 campaign, the issue of plastic waste saw the store remove all single-use plastic water bottles from their food halls and restaurants and a successful collaboration with Studio Swine saw limited edition objet d’art created from shoreline detritus. Adidas have also initiated a sustainability plan that has seen the company phase out plastic bags in store and commit to ongoing environmental projects.

The hope is that this new technology and the materials and products that it’s producing, while currently trending, are not just a trend. If solving the problems with plastics is to be a serious undertaking, the fashion industry needs to make a long-term commitment to putting responsibility and sustainability at the forefront of its objectives. The adoption of such policies across all market levels would massively decrease the industry’s environmental footprint and bring it closer to a ‘closed cycle’ method of production. As a medium that all consumers interact with on a daily basis, fashion is the ideal platform for promoting an ecologically minded ethos, so while the ratio of recycling to rubbish may seem insurmountable now, turning the use of sustainable materials from niche to norm would ensure that the positive contribution the fashion industry could make to the environment would be more than a drop in the ocean.