A vibrant future for polyester recycling

CIWM Fellow and Stuff4Life founder, John Twitchen, responds to a recent report which claims recycled content polyester is ‘greenwashing’, in this article for CIWM’s Circular Online.

Stuff4Life has responded to the Changing Markets Foundation’s recent assertion that recycled content polyester is ‘greenwashing’ – in fact, clothes made from polyester could soon be recycled back into ‘as-good-as-new, high-quality fabrics and garments’ right here in the UK.

Having worked in the waste and resources sector for over a quarter of a century and striving for a ‘world beyond waste’ throughout, in my opinion the greatest challenges faced by the sector are best summed up in two succinct lines:

  • getting manufacturers to make stuff from recycled and recyclable materials; and
  • getting consumers to think before they buy stuff, and to choose value over cost.

Both are much easier said than done, however some of the steps now being taken by major multinational brands and cottage industries alike to address both these points should be celebrated, not castigated.

Because, according to the mantra, action speaks louder than words.

A few years ago, I was staring at a hi-vis vest that had ended up on the side of the road, which I mused must have fallen off a builder’s van after being used to warn of an overhanging ladder. Wondering what happened to all the PPE and workwear our industry and many other industries rely on, where safety is a front-and-centre issue, when it reached the end of its life, I decided to find out.

Of course, the life expectancy of the humble hi-vis can be relatively short given the sorts of tasks these essential garments are exposed to every day. Picking up bins, filling holes in the road, mending railways and saving lives at sea. Harsh environments, one and all. Safety first.

Creating Stuff4Life
My inquisitiveness was in part inspired by my work with innovative sportswear company Presca, who were challenging the status quo and making high performance sportswear from mechanically recycled plastic bottles. Typically, 8-10 single-use plastic bottles make up Presca’s shirts, converting discarded items worth less than a penny each, and a life expectancy of a few moments, into a high-quality garment with a street value of £30 or more and a life expectancy of many years.

However, at the end of their life, these products currently face potentially the same destiny as any other polyester or mixed fibre garment – incineration or landfill. There was literally no infrastructure in place, nor any drivers existing, to recycle polyester fabric.

Partnering with my university pal and fellow environmental sciences graduate, Miles Watkins, we set out to create a solution to this obvious shortcoming.

Stuff4Life was born and, after much time spent on research and trials working with the University of Teesside, Presca and Amey, this month we are set to recycle the first batches of polyester workwear in partnership with Arco, the UK’s only integrated services and safety products business. We’re really excited.

Least-worst
I therefore read with interest the recent article on Circular Online about a new video and campaign by the Changing Markets Foundation. It expressed several views, among them that recycling single use plastic bottles into polyester fabric and made into clothes was ‘downcycling’, ‘a charade’ and ‘greenwashing’, in part because these clothes cannot then be recycled.

The truth of the matter is that every material made for use as clothing has an impact. These impacts are varied but all are significant. There is no magic answer…

Read the rest of this article at Circular Online!

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