BOSTON — If you think the latest fashions on the runway are trashy, you might just be right.
Oscar de la Renta, Tommy Hilfiger, and other major designers are beginning to use recycled plastic bottles for haute couture.
But you needn't be a supermodel to don environmentally friendly clothing. Patagonia fleece sweaters, Acorn fleece slippers, and Stink Bug surf trunks are only a few of the brands at the local mall that use recycled fabric .
Buyers might not know they are purchasing "green" goods, as clothingmakers don't always list recycled content on the label.
Some clothingmakers use the recycled label as a sales tool.
Recycled clothing is made from polyethylene terephthalate, also known as PET, a form of polyester used to make bottles and containers for water, soda, juice, tennis balls, and cleaning products. (A PET container has a triangle with a number 1 inside it on or near its bottom.)
Malden Mills Industries' Polartec/Polarfleece and 3M's Thinsulate are branded fabrics that include some recycled content. Many of the recycled fabrics, including Polartec, are made from Wellman's recycled EcoSpun yarn. "All things being equal, the presence of recycled content will motivate a consumer to buy a product made with recycled content," said Luke Schmidt, president of the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) in Charlotte, N.C.
PET is known for being shatter-resistant, strong, and lightweight. The PET bottle was patented in 1973 by Nathaniel Wyeth, a chemist and brother of painter Andrew Wyeth. Recycling of PET bottles began in 1977, and in the past several years, the material started showing up in Polartec and other well-known brands. Today, PET bottles are recycled all over the world into fabric, insulation, office partitions, carpet, fiberfill for furniture and sleeping bags, and other products. Five PET bottles produce enough polyester fiber to make an extralarge T-shirt, and it takes 25 two-liter bottles for a sweater.
In 1997, 578 million pounds of PET plastic bottles, or 22 percent of the PET bottles made, were recycled in the United States, NAPCOR said. That's up from 450 million pounds in 1993.
Change in fashion? Just melt some plastic
"The property of PET that makes recycling possible is that it's a good thermal plastic that can be melted and reformed an indefinite number of times without losing its strength," says John Richmeier, director of technical services for Image Carpet Industries in Armuchee, Ga. NAPCOR says Image Carpet is second to Wellman of New York in the number of PET bottles it recycles. Image Carpet recycles 1.8 billion bottles per year, and Wellman claims its Fortrel EcoSpun yarn keeps 2.4 billion plastic containers out of landfills every year.
"We buy from just about every state in the United States, as well as Mexico and Canada," says John Hobson, group vice president for recycling at Wellman in Johnsonville, S.C. About half of the fiber Wellman makes is recycled; the rest is virgin polyester.
Recycled fiber is slightly more expensive than virgin polyester fiber, but it gives manufacturers a way to show they care about the environment.
"We want to do our part," says Karen Beattie, product marketing manager at Malden Mills of Lawrence, Mass. About 20 percent of the yarn Malden Mills buys to make Polartec is recycled.
She says the strength, warmth, and durability properties of virgin and recycled yarns are the same. The only difference is that recycled yarns have a matte rather than the glossy finish of virgin polyester.
How a plastic bottle gets from the consumer's curbside recycling bin and into a new sweater or jacket is a modern-day miracle akin to the workings of Rumplestiltskin, the tiny fairy-tale character who could spin straw into gold.
The process is comparable among recyclers such as Wellman and Image Carpet.
Everything begins when PET containers are collected at curbside and trucked to a material recovery facility. There, they are hand-sorted from glass and other recyclables, and then flattened into bales weighing upwards of 1,000 pounds. Each bale contains more than 8,000 two-liter soda bottles. When 30 to 35 bales are ready, they are sold and trucked to about 20 recycling companies.
The purchaser opens the bale, shakes loose the bottles, and puts them on a conveyor belt, where sophisticated X-ray machinery detects the 2 percent or so of the non-PET bottles in the bale that eluded earlier sorters. Those bottles are blown off the line with an air jet. The remaining bottles then go through another machine with a camera eye that separates green from clear bottles. They undergo the same processing separately.
The bottles are then ground into "dirty flake" about 1/4-inch square. This flake includes bottle caps and labels.
The dirty flake is run through an air blower that puffs off the labels, which usually are made of polypropylene plastic. The flake then goes into a hot-water wash with caustic chemicals to remove dirt and the glue from the label.
The wash also separates other non-PET polyester parts, such as the bottle caps. Many caps are made from polyethylene plastic. Aluminum caps are removed with an electrostatic process.
Each of the different plastics has a different specific gravity - its density versus the water wash. PET polyester has a high specific gravity, so it sinks to the bottom of the wash tank. The labels and caps float in two different layers near the top of the wash. The label and cap plastics are skimmed off and often resold to other recyclers who turn them into flower pots and garden furniture.
The remaining polyester, now known as "clean flake," continues through the recycling process. It is melted at about 565 degrees F. into a liquid the consistency of honey. This molten liquid is then forced through as many as 32 shower head-like spinnerets, each with more than 1,000 tiny holes. What emerges are 32,000 or more continuous strands of recycled polyester fiber as narrow as a human hair. The fibers are bunched together into a big rope known as a tow, cooled by forced air, drawn and stretched through a series of stainless steel rollers to add strength, and crimped to add bulk.
Spinning bottles into yarn
They then are cut into pieces one- to three-inches long to make fabrics and seven- to eight-inches long to make carpets. As they are cut, they are blown through a series of ducts and into a baling machine, which compresses them into rectangles weighing 650 pounds each. The bales, which look like polyfill, are ready to be spun into yarn and then woven or knitted into fabrics and other products.
The entire recycling process, from bottle separation on the conveyor belt to cutting, takes about 30 minutes. When 3M buys fiber bales, it opens them and then blows the fibers mechanically into quilting material. That adds bulk and warmth for its recycled Thinsulate product, known as Type R. That Thinsulate is made from 42 percent recycled polyester, at least 25 percent of which is from recycled bottles.
Other manufacturers, like Image Carpet, have fully integrated operations, turning a recycled bottle into a carpet in about three weeks.