How can you make a t-shirt from plastic bottles? (And why would you want to?) Well, the key to “how” lies in three letters: PET. PET stands for Polyethylene Terephthalate, which is a strong, durable, and recyclable material used in products like water bottles, soda bottles, and food jars. Its strength and reusability make it an exceptional candidate for recycling into other applications—like recycled clothing. The fact that we can get PET from plastic happens to be a crucial piece of the “why.”
Why make shirts from plastic water bottles? According to the Ocean Conservancy, scientists predict that by the year 2050, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish. [source] Although plastic is obviously extremely useful, many plastic products are single-use, meaning they are used once and then thrown away. Sure, you may not be throwing your plastic waste directly into the sea. But waste starts on land and a significant amount eventually makes its way into the oceans.
Sadly, less than 10% of the world’s plastic gets recycled. This number is devastating, considering that almost none of that plastic waste is biodegradable. Essentially, once plastic is made, it exists forever. On the flip side, nearly all solid plastic (like water bottles!) is capable of being recycled. With that knowledge, some clothing companies are taking that plastic and giving it new life.
How exactly are water bottles turned into fabric? Plastic bottles are shredded into flakes and then pulsed through hot air, converting the flakes into pellets with hard shells. The pellets are run through a dryer to eliminate any moisture that could weaken the final product and then they are melted into a thick liquid. Finally, the molten material is spun into polyester yarn. The recycled polyester yarn can go on to be used in any number of traditional polyester applications—like t-shirts.
When you’re checking the label in recycled clothing, this type of recycled polyester may also be called post-consumer PET or R-PET (for Recycled-Polyethylene Terephthalate). Recycled polyester is often combined with recycled cotton for a double-win. (Recycled cotton is generally comprised of either post-industrial or pre-consumer scraps from the production of other cotton garments.)
Where to find recycled clothing is thankfully less difficult than ever before. Patagonia has led the way in using eco-friendly materials like recycled polyester, wool, and down. Rothy’s makes practical (and cute) footwear using recycled water bottles, and Adidas has even gotten in on the game with their Stella McCartney line. Buffalo Jackson is proud to be part of the recycled clothing revolution with our eco-friendly graphic tees for men and for women. Crafted of 100% recycled content (post-consumer PET & post-industrial cotton), each t-shirt uses the plastic of 8 water bottles. That’s 8 plastic bottles kept out of a landfill. And the ocean. (We also ship the shirts in recycled compostable bags. Score.)
While the water and electricity required to produce any type of garment -- recycled clothing or otherwise - continue to present environmental concerns, the fact that even a small dent can be made in the plastic waste crisis feels like a win. As more brands embrace recycled polyester as equal to or even superior to virgin fibers, recycled clothing options will continue to grow in quality and quantity. And hopefully, longer-term solutions will continue to develop along the way.