Recycled Plastic: Is it Really Eco-Friendly?
In case you didn’t know, plastic lasts… It can take a few hundred years to decompose, having catastrophic effects on the planet all the while. Recycling plastic is becoming more widely practised, and turning it into polyester for clothing more popular. But is it really safe to continue doing this? On the other hand, where would it go if it wasn’t put to some use?
A friend of mine declared to me recently, “I know plastic gets a bad rap, but I’ll tell you what… it doesn’t half last – the colours in that are still poppin’!”. He was talking about a bag I got at a vintage store in London some 10+ years ago – a sort of picnic basket bag, made out of beautiful, bright, woven plastic. And it’s true, it has lasted…
I’m genuinely perplexed by that – many bags haven’t stood the test of time or endured the copious amounts of junk I carry around (I’m basically Mary Poppins). I love it, it’s my favourite bag, and I’m so proud that it’s lasted – even if I am slightly ashamed that it’s plastic. My friend was right, the colours are still phenomenal and it’s as strong as it ever was. What’s more, it means that there hasn’t been a need to buy a new summer bag for over 10 years! That’s got to have saved the planet a little bit, right?
So, it’s no secret that plastic lasts. It is becoming much more difficult to ignore its damaging effects on our health, our wildlife, and our planet. It feels as though we are fighting a losing battle, but there must be something someone can do about it?
Recycling is back!
Okay, so it didn’t really go anywhere, but it seems that it goes through phases of being popular.
When I was in my late teens, vintage clothing seemed to take the world by storm (my world, at least). This phenomenon didn’t last long though. By the time I was 24, most vintage stores around me had closed down. Instead, it seemed that high-street brands realised they were missing a trick and began manufacturing things which only looked vintage. Thankfully, that didn’t last either, and over the last few years, Liverpool’s Bold Street has become sprinkled with vintage gems again.
People have been passionate about recycling/upcycling things for a lot longer than you may think. Take for example, Ian Snow, founded in 1976, and Shared Earth in 1986. Both brands are not only conscious of the planet, but of ethical trade too.
Recently, recycled plastics are being utilised by even more brands; turning plastic into bags, shoes, and swimwear. There is one potential downfall here though - the products take longer to manufacture and are therefore more expensive to the consumer. For example, a shoulder bag from Hamilton Perkins will likely set you back around $120 (£85). Does this mean people are less likely to (or be able to) invest in recycled products?
But, “Things aren’t built to last anymore”, said everyone’s nan everywhere. She’s right, consumer culture means that we are constantly wanting the latest trends so manufacturers have no reason to make things that will last. Maybe it’s time for brands to take responsibility, make everything more sustainable, durable, and hand-me-down-able. It may well mean paying more money for products, but arguably in the long run, it’ll be worth it!
Is recycled plastic really sustainable and is it safe?
It could be questioned whether or not it is. While recycling plastic bottles and turning them into fabric (polyester) beats using virgin polyester materials, it is still polyester all the same. Research into microplastics has shown that these tiny synthetic particles are finding their way into our food, air, and water. The extent of the damage this can have on humans is not yet known.
A recent article in The Guardian highlights a study suggesting that harmful chemicals (BPA & phthalate) found in plastics have detrimental and catastrophic effects on fertility rates. It declares that by 2045, sperm counts in the West are likely to reach zero. Friends, that is (most likely) before your grandchildren, or maybe even children, get to child-bearing age.
There is potentially every reason to assume that this damage will only be furthered through turning plastic into fabric; microplastics are released into the water system every time we wash our clothes. Subsequently, they find their way into our oceans, and eventually, the food chain.
Additionally, there are not as many systems in place to recycle clothing as there are plastic bottles. It is suggested that once a plastic bottle has been recycled into clothing, it is unlikely to be recycled again. Because of this, we should consider encouraging more people to recycle garments instead of turning them into landfill.
That being said, there are increasingly ways of recycling unwanted clothes, selling them on through marketplaces such as Depop and Vinted. I’m hopeful that this trend is here for the long-haul.
What more can be done?
There seems to be good reason for using recycled plastics to make garments (or even accessories rather than clothes). Not only because the ratio of plastic waste to plastic recycling is 9:1, but because plastic is renowned for its durability. This would potentially mean that – just as our predecessors did – the things we choose to invest in can be enjoyed for a lifetime. Or at least a lot longer than a high-street buy!
However, since the issue with microplastics has shown, we might want to reconsider what products plastics are going into and keep it to items less likely to meet the washing machine! In other words, accessories, bags, shoes. It needn’t stop there - there are all kinds of wonderful and wacky ways of incorporating recycled plastic into furniture and other household items.
I’m not claiming to know the answer – I’m not a designer, an engineer, or an innovator – I’m merely a 30-something first-time university student putting my thoughts onto paper. But to those innovators among us, what do you think you can offer the future of our planet?