Could Recycled Polyester Become Fashionable?

Textile manufacturers are developing advanced methods to include recycled polyester, with increasing investment and interest from major fashion brands.

Polyester, a ubiquitous material in today’s fashion industry, graces both cheap and designer clothing. However, a staggering 85% of discarded polyester clothing ends up in landfills or is incinerated, leaving a significant environmental footprint. Surprisingly, few individuals engage in creative endeavors like crafting patchwork quilts or rag rugs from old polyester garments, despite the existence of chemical processes that can recycle polyester textiles into new fibers without compromising strength or flexibility.

Textile manufacturers have made strides in developing innovative recycling processes that employ heat, water, pressure, and chemical solvents to disassemble polyester clothing, effectively separating dyes, waterproof coatings, and other blended fibers. This results in a liquefied polyester substance that can be solidified into chips or granules, ready for reuse in the production of fresh garments. Notably, the fiber recycling sector has experienced a surge in investment and the emergence of numerous startups, while major fashion giants such as H&M and Zara have expressed interest in incorporating more recycled polyester into their products.

Navigating the Complex History of Recycled Polyester

The history of post-consumer recycling presents a mixed narrative. The mere potential for recycling does not guarantee economic efficiency. Many assume that reusing existing materials is inherently cost-effective compared to producing items from virgin resources, but that’s not always the case.

In 1996, John Tierney, a recipient of the 2014 Julian L. Simon Award, penned a thought-provoking article for The New York Times titled “Recycling Is Garbage,” in which he argued that recycling might be wasteful, both in terms of time and money, as well as natural resources. Last year, Tierney reiterated his stance in a follow-up piece for the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, referencing a report in which even Greenpeace acknowledged the limitations of recycling household waste, particularly plastics.

Nevertheless, it is important to distinguish between municipal recycling mandates with questionable cost-effectiveness and corporate recycling initiatives driven by profit motives. The work of Pierre Desrochers from the University of Toronto, a recipient of the 2017 Julian L. Simon Award, sheds light on the history of industrial recycling, highlighting how companies have historically repurposed waste byproducts for practical reasons, even without modern sustainability commitments.

A Path to Cost-Effective Sustainability in Fashion

Thus, while scaling up man-made textile recycling is not automatic, there is a precedent for manufacturers to engage in resource recycling for practical purposes, independent of environmental considerations. With the knowledge that polyester recycling can maintain its material qualities, these processes are likely to become more cost-effective and efficient in the future.

The companies involved in this endeavor, from fiber manufacturers to collection and processing firms to clothing brands, will embrace and scale up this technology based on demand and practicality. The litmus test for the economic efficiency of polyester recycling is simple: if customers are willing to pay a price that exceeds production costs, then it is, by definition, an economically viable practice. This becomes particularly significant when the most prominent players are “fast fashion” brands, often criticized for producing excessively cheap clothing.

Expanding the Definition of Innovation

This industrial and retail development represents a prime example of what I term “non-computer tech innovation.” Since the mid-1990s, the advent of the consumer Internet has led to a disproportionate focus on digital innovation. However, this viewpoint neglects the fact that innovation encompasses a wide range of domains, including materials engineering, manufacturing processes, behavioral therapy, genetic engineering, and pharmaceutical research. While these fields undoubtedly utilize computers and specialized software, their impact is tangible and deeply rooted in the physical world.

Technological progress, in essence, is the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, spanning a spectrum of human interests and values. Looking ahead, it is entirely conceivable that the most groundbreaking innovation of the year could be in advanced plastics recycling, standing alongside achievements like the development of a new positronic brain. Innovation knows no bounds and extends far beyond the digital realm, enriching our lives in diverse and unexpected ways.

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