Why I will never buy clothing made of recycled plastic (and it's not because of the plastic microfibers)

29 June 2019


Water photo created by jcomp

The other day I was scrolling through Instagram when a post stopped me. The image featured a jumper made of recycled plastic. 12 plastic bottles to be exact. However it was the caption explaining how the item of clothing was going to save us from drowning in a sea of plastic that had me rolling my eyes. I looked through the comments hoping to find someone else as unimpressed. Instead all I found was praise.

Clothing made of recycled plastics is a growing market. Shoes, pants, tops, activewear, accessories and much more are being sold to us as the solution to keeping plastics out of our oceans and landfill. These items are made of bottles and fishing nets, discarded in the ocean. Well that's how it's sold to us. Yes, the fishing nets made of plastic fibres (also known as ghost nets) are discarded. But I was not as convinced about the bottles. I asked seven companies selling clothing made of recycled bottles where these bottles were collected from and the response was a country or region; India, China and around South-East Asia. No other information was offered.

When I first started learning about plastics plaguing our oceans the idea of clothing made of ocean plastics was very appealing and sounded like it could be part of a solution. I even wrote a blog post in 2014. However, my views have changes considerably and it's not because of plastic microfibres or the impact recycling plastic has on the environment. Well, these are part of it but not the sole reason for my change of mind. 

Plastic bottles and discarded fishing nets turned into clothing, shoes and accessories will not save the oceans. This is simply a bandaid. Obviously halting plastic production would be the ultimate fix. Since we don't have access to the off switch in the plastic manufacturing facilities, one of the next best steps is providing financial assistance to organisations focusing on education and setting up clean drinking water facilities.

When I see sweatshirts made of plastic bottles selling for $55 by the brand Everlane, all I can think of is “gosh, that money could be better spent going to education programs helping communities understand the need to break free from plastic.” 

Similarly $68 on a pair of Girlfriend leggings would be much better invested in creating safe accessible drinking water in areas of this world where there is none or setting up recycling in communities that have nothing. Safe drinking water would have a huge impact beyond plastic pollution. 

Imagine what 1,110 Euros, the price of Prada's new Re-Nylon backpack, could do for a community group lobbying government to set up legislation to reduce plastic use in a country with inadequate waste collections. 

It's hard for me to watch the praise these companies receive. They are profiting from this so called solution by tapping into our habitual need we've learned to buy new stuff. Shouldn't we pass it onto those doing meaningful work in areas of the world where clean water is lacking, recycling systems are poor or non-existent and waste education needed?

With second hand clothing stores in most of our neighbourhoods filled with so much inventory or the many second hand online outlets popping up these days, wouldn't it be smarter and kinder to choose second hand or even go without, and pass on the $55 to help fix the real issues? 

It's only easy to throw out when communities have no access to education or waste services. By the way this jacket costs $175 which would provide THREE water dispensers for a school canteen in Indonesia.


But what to do with all the bottles out there? I hear you and I don't have the best solution. Ultimately I would rather see a plastic bottle turned back into a plastic bottle. Not clothing. Until plastic bottles are potentially phased out then it makes much more sense to collect and repurpose as a bottle for people in areas without access to clean drinking water. Instead of clothing companies using fishing nets while selling washing machine filters to catch the microfibres, they should change their business model. These companies just want you to continue buying their stuff without the guilt. It's part of that belief consumers should change, not the companies. It has to be both. Cute active wear is not a necessity. Clean drinking water is. 

I understand it might sound like a big ask for people to donate $50 towards an environmental group without any tangible immediate return like a sweater. I don't know where the need to have physical proof to prove we care comes from. T-shirts with eco slogans or recycled plastic backpacks have become a status symbol. This isn't just in the environmental movement, the practice is everywhere. We should be OK to pass on money to help without some kind of return.  I can assure having worked with and interacting in many grassroots environmental organisations, our donations are pivitol when it comes to fixing clean water, education, waste and recycling services.


There are a number of organisations tackling plastic pollution closer listed below. But before clicking through think about your own neighbourhood or a region in your country where that money can uplift. Here in Australia half of Aboriginal communities have no rubbish bin or waste pick up service. This is why I have chosen to donate 5% of my profits from Waste Not and Waste Not Everyday to the organisation Waste Aid Australia to help change this. Here are suggestions for other groups and projects:

Donations for A Plastic Oceans go towards facilitator education programs within local communities in local languages, creating youth educational films, installing Elkay water refill station at under-served schools and supporting local activism.

The Oliver Ridley Project works to not only remove ghost nets from oceans but also provide educational outreach while working with fisheries to minimise and reuse fishing gear.

Bottle for Botol sets up education, reusable alternatives and tools to empower students to create change in their own communities.

There is also projects like Sri Lanka's Poseidon Army, Cambodia's first Nature Discover Centre, help build an accessible library out of eco-bricks in Malawi, fund a small island recycling & waste management in Fiji, provide assistance to Reef Check Malaysia to create a waste management and recycling system on a Borneo island and Reduce Plastic in Tanzania. I could continue with this list.

The greatest teaching during my “journey” to create less waste and reduce plastic is learning to pause before buying anything and meditate on how the impact my money (or other resources like time and physical energy) can be used to help lift up others. I realise it's a luxury to think like this, so I don't take the responsibility lightly. And that's not to say I'm perfect in that thought 100% of the time. But as always, I try. 

I live in an area with robust recycling and waste management, quality environmental education within reach and clean drinking water in abundance. This scenario is not the same everywhere and by redirecting my purchase hopefully one day it will be. 

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