Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
Karen Leonas is a professor at North Carolina State University’s College of Textiles, but she wants to know my uninformed opinion of clothing made from recycled plastic.
“What's the first thing you think of when you hear about clothing made out of plastic bottles?" she asks me.
She doesn’t pose the question because I’m an authority on the issue — I’m a journalist, after all — but because my view of such clothing likely reflects what the average consumer thinks, and not what a textile chemist like her would.
Perhaps because I live in California, a beach scene comes to mind. I see crumpled water bottles caked with sand and grime, surrounded by seagulls.
“I don’t know,” I tell Leonas, “maybe dirty bottles.”
She says many people feel the same way, which is why when clothing made from such materials gets bad press, it can quickly erode the public’s trust — if there was any to start. For two months, October and November, Nike’s new NBA jerseys made headlines for ripping apart as a half dozen players, including LeBron James, wore them during games. The jerseys are made of Alpha Yarns and recycled bottles, and news outlets such as USA Today, Business Insider, and ESPN were quick to note that while describing the wardrobe malfunctions. SB Nation even assembled two product testers and a design expert to figure out if the jerseys’ contents were to blame.
Scientists tell Racked that the materials Nike used for the jerseys certainly matter, but not for the reasons one might think. Sports fans shouldn’t point the finger at recycled plastic for causing the tears. The public should, however, be concerned about the impact of synthetic clothing on the environment.
As for the jerseys, Leonas says, “I’ve actually done some studies in the laboratory looking at recycled polyester [plastic] versus virgin polyester. The basic chemical structure is the same. In all the tests that I’ve done, there isn’t a significant loss of strength when you’re using recycled versus virgin, so it seems unlikely that they’re ripping as a result of that.”
Leonas says reporters likely focused on the fact that Nike’s jerseys are made partly from plastic bottles because of their own assumptions about such materials. Since she’s not a Nike employee, the chemist can’t definitively determine the source of the problem, but says a combination of factors may have contributed to the tears. In Nike’s statement to ESPN, the company said it was working with the NBA to stop future tears from occurring.
“We are very concerned to see any game-day tear and are working to implement a solution that involves standardizing the embellishment process and enhancing the seam strength of game-day jerseys,” the statement said.
During the embellishment process, numbers are affixed to the jerseys.
“It could be sewing it on,” Leonas says. “It could be the heat transfer process. There could be something there. It could be the base fabric. Their temperature might be off, creating some degradation.”
But Leonas also points out that the necks of the jerseys are larger in the back, which may make them prone to tearing, she says. This month, there have been no more jersey tears, a relief for Nike, in its first year of an eight-year contract as the NBA’s apparel maker. But in the public imagination, it might be too late to reverse perceptions about clothing made from bottles, Leonas suggests.
“I do think the fact that there’s negative association — that’s going to impact people’s assumptions [about recycled clothing]. They may be hesitant to purchase it for fear that it’s not going to have the durability they want it to have,” she says.
Environmentalists wouldn’t mind if consumers skipped the recycled polyester trend altogether. While a number of brands in addition to Nike, including Patagonia, Levi’s, Timberland, and Adidas, have embraced such apparel and footwear, some researchers argue that these materials contribute to the growing amount of microplastics, or plastic particles, in our water supply and the air we breathe.
Marcus Eriksen, an environmental scientist who founded the 5 Gyres Institute to study plastic pollution, questions the idea that “recycled” is the right term to use when describing clothing made from plastic bottles. He says turning PET (polyethylene terephthalate) soda bottles into, say, a fleece jacket simply allows the plastic to exist for another generation or two before it winds up in the ocean. According to Nike, each NBA jersey represents about 20 recycled PET bottles. But in the end, the plastic remains and so does the problem of plastic pollution, Eriksen contends. Moreover, the clothing itself is a concern.
“That fleece jacket is shedding microfibers constantly,” he says. “All textiles are.” A persistent organic pollutant, when plastic sheds, it finds its way into marine life. “They absorb toxins and they’re being consumed by billions of organisms,” he says. “Hundreds of species are eating trash.”
Eriksen estimates that a quarter of the fish in Indonesia have ingested microfibers or microplastics. Humans, in turn, eat the fish. He says he’s even found the particles in parts of the North Pole.
“Plastic (and some other polymers) has been shown to be persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic,” he says. “The question is why is any product on the market without robust testing of its durability of toxicity. Without this information, people cannot make informed choices.”
Leonas says that microplastics are definitely a health concern, but it’s unclear exactly how they’re spreading. And while synthetic clothing may be harmful, she says it does have benefits.
“You’re no longer taking new resources from the environment to make clothes,” she says. “You’re protecting that part of the environment and trying to figure out how we can take these products and reincorporate them into a useful product and extend the life.”
Eriksen is investigating the laundering process to see how it contributes to the spread of microfibers, or microplastics. He says industrial washers and dryers are “spewing out” microfibers into the air, and the fact that Americans typically wash their clothes after each wear adds to plastic pollution. But technology can help if it popularizes what Eriksen calls “sticky” clothing made from a single weave, as it dramatically reduces shedding.
Manufacturers have also developed washing machine filters to capture microfibers, but Eriksen suspects the particles are just too small for the filters now in use to collect.
José Luis Gutiérrez-García, project director of Upcycle the Gyres Society (gyre refers to ocean currents circling clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and counterclockwise in the Southern Hemisphere), says his organization is now partnering with a company to develop a filter that can better capture plastic particles from textiles.
“We believe that even though the intentions are good, companies that are converting plastic bottles into textiles are creating a problem of a greater magnitude,” he says. “The smaller the plastic [particles], the more difficult it is to both prevent and clean them up once they get into the environment.”
He notes that German inventors invented a mesh laundry bag called Guppyfriend for synthetic clothes designed to reduce the number of microfibers that go down the drain. Patagonia, the retailer that popularized recycled polyester clothing, now sells the bag. The company advises customers to buy less, wash less, and to buy high-quality apparel less likely to shed microfibers.
It started selling its “post-consumer recycled” line in 1993, inspiring competitors like Land’s End to sell thermal underwear made from bottles and Nordstrom to consider offering such clothing, the Los Angeles Times reported two years later. Even then, Greenpeace questioned how beneficial it was for companies to convert plastic into apparel, arguing, much like Eriksen, that it was a matter of time before the pieces ended up in the landfill. As time passed, scientists increasingly sounded the alarm about how plastic — be it bags, clothing, bottles — affects the environment, marine life, and human health.
Browne says the Benign By Design program reached out to Nike specifically about clothing fiber pollution, but the company declined to get involved.
“They felt chemicals on clothes were a bigger issue, and they also felt the public was not concerned about clothing-fiber pollution,” Browne says.
Nike has not responded to request for comment, but the mishaps with the NBA jerseys have certainly led to more focus on the garments’ contents. While Browne did not comment specifically on the jersey controversy, he says both the durability and ecological toxicity of different types of clothes should be evaluated. The lint filters currently on the market do not ease his concerns because he says their effectiveness is untested.
In addition to residential and commercial lint filters and bags, Gutiérrez-García says that waterless washing machines, shedless fabric, and a Canadian filtration technology at the wastewater treatment plant stage will help reduce microplastics in our environment. He estimates that 1.5 billion plastic particles enter tributaries daily.
Lint from dryers contributes to the problem as well because people bag it and throw it out, and it heads to landfills.
“The wind is going to spread it all over the place,” Gutiérrez-García says. “Lint from drying machines reaches the ground, rivers, lakes, and the ocean.”
But dryer lint can actually be reconstituted into shedless fabric or even plastic construction materials. The first trials exploring the conversion of lint into plastic beams have been completed, according to Gutiérrez-García.
Although microplastics worry him, he believes the tools exist to get a better handle on these pollutants.
“It’s a wicked problem that we’re working on solving and we have the technology to solve,” he says.