Closing the Plastic Loop: How rethinking plastic upcycling can save our oceans

Oh, plastic. The familiar, yet oh-so-infamous material plaguing our beautiful oceans. From straws and water bottles to food and take-out packaging, it’s absolutely everywhere. Local governments and businesses are beginning to curb excessive single-use plastics now that studies are focusing on its significantly negative impact on ocean health.

While some tout boosting waste management infrastructure as the solution (only 8% of plastic is actually recycled), it’s becoming clear that solving the plastic crisis needs to go beyond recycling. Simply put, we need to rethink the plastic economy.

Some changes are already taking place. Restaurants are ditching straws, local governments are banning single-use shopping bags, and a few apparel companies have even started integrating recycled water bottles into clothing. If wearing clothes made out of water bottles makes perfect sense, you’re likely not surprised that the majority of clothing produced today contain plastics.

The rise in synthetic fabrics followed the boom of poly technology and production in the 1950s, leading to the creation of acrylic, acetate, lycra/spandex, nylon, olefin, polyester, rayon, and vinyl. Today, over 64% of clothes produced are made with synthetic materials containing polypropylene. 

Plastic in our oceans has been a longstanding problem, and it doesn’t stop at straws and water bottles floating out to sea. Microplastic fibers are shed into our waterways whenever a synthetic garment is washed. This invisible event is easy to overlook, but collectively it has a huge impact on our environment.

Washing a single polyester fleece has the potential to send over 1 million microplastic fibers into our waterways. Sadly, fish often mistake the tiny plastic deposits as plankton, pushing microplastics up through our food chain and into the food we eat. At our current rate of wasting plastic, ocean plastic will outnumber fish by 2050. 

Transforming water bottles into clothes is a brilliant way to get them out of landfills and into a more useful product. Here’s the rub: the process of turning a water bottle into fiber suitable for textiles is a very resource-intensive process that results in a lower-quality fabric.

So, when it comes to tackling plastic waste in the textile world, the future has to be fiber-to-fiber. This means creating upcycled material from existing poly fibers into more durable, long-lasting products. 

Championing A Circular Economy for Plastic

Ultimately, solving this problem needs to consider the entire lifecycle of plastic, from how it's created to what happens when it no longer serves its original purpose. As champions for zero waste in the textile industry, we believe the solution to plastic is the same — to replace the linear take-make-waste model with a circular system designed to extend the life, quality, and value of every material.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has rolled their vision calls for the elimination of unnecessary plastic packaging through redesign, to ensure all plastic is 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable, and decoupling it entirely from the consumption of finite resources.

Everyone can be a part of the solution.

There isn’t a “silver bullet” to solving the ocean plastic crisis, and we believe small, everyday actions have an impact, especially when collective momentum builds. While the heavy lifting will ultimately remain on governments and businesses, people can still pitch in by choosing to rethink their relationship with plastic.

Below, we rounded up a few tips for folks looking to cut back on plastic: 

  • Buy clothing made from 100% natural materials or synthetics via fiber-to-fiber recycling
  • Wash clothes less often, at low temperatures, and keep them for longer periods of time
  • Be prepared to BYO reusable utensils and to-go containers to food carts & restaurants

  • Champion local & state measures to reduce or ban single-use plastics
  • Support B-Corp companies that are required to demonstrate positive social & environmental impact

  • Buy durable products made from upcycled materials instead of virgin materials 

The more steps we take to keep materials in the loop and out of the landfill, the closer we’ll get to creating systems that are truly regenerative, sustainable, and healthier for our planet. 

Want to stay in the loop about the circular economy?