Dear Recyclebank: Is plastic fabric recyclable? –Emily K.
Dear Emily: If you have stretchy workout clothing or a pair of jeans that stretch, chances are they contain Spandex or Lycra, an elastic fiber that is made of polyether. Many other synthetic fabrics in your closet, such as polyester, nylon, and pleather, are made of the same materials that make plastic, such as petroleum.
While it is possible for plastic fibers to be recycled into new fabric, the technology is still relatively new and not yet mainstream. If you are disposing of synthetic fabric that is not in good enough condition to be donated, you can still investigate textiles recycling facilities in your area; in many cases, old fabrics are turned into rags, insulation, or padding. Many H&M locations collect textiles for repurposing or recycling.
More common than recycling polyester into new fabric, is recycling plastic waste in other forms — such as bottles — to manufacturer plastic fibers for clothing. Patagonia was an early adopter of this practice; the company has made fleece from recycled bottles since 1993. And Thread International pays people in developing countries to collect plastic trash, which they then turn into fabric. These companies not only help divert plastic waste from landfills and the environment, but they also reduce the demand on fossil fuels like petroleum for making new fabric.
While there are many benefits to synthetic fibers — they can help your body be cooler or warmer, they can act as a second skin, they can repel odors and increase durability — they also have some serious environmental drawbacks.
First, virgin polyester and other synthetic fibers use nonrenewable resources — petroleum. What’s more, just the act of washing your synthetic clothing can cause them to shed microfibers into waterways, which eventually makes its way to rivers and oceans — and into our food supply! In rivers and oceans, microplastics are ingested by marine life, where they build up in our food chain.
Microplastics have been found in the bloodstreams of fish in the deepest parts of the ocean, in Arctic Ice, and even in rainfall over remote mountain ranges.
There are a few ways we can minimize the damage that plastic fabrics cause to our environment:
1. Choose natural fibers over synthetic ones. Many natural fibers have their own built-in performance benefits. Linen is breathable and keeps you cool. Woven cotton is stretchy. Merino wool, such as Smartwool products, is odor-neutralizing.
2. Buy fewer clothes. The average American woman has more than 100 pieces of clothing in her closet — arguably more than any one person needs! Invest instead in a fewer (higher quality) key pieces that can be mixed and matched.
3. Dispose of properly. When you no longer want a garment, give it away to a friend or donate it if it’s in wearable condition. If not, upcycle it at home or drop it at a textiles recycling collection facility.