Waste Collection: A New Frontier For The Fashion Industry?
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A sign asking for a deposit system in Kerala, India. Bottle refunding encourages consumers to recycle but requires a collections infrastructure. Fashion companies could provide that—and secure a source for their industry’s polyester at the same time.
By Alden Wicker :
Many consumers are unaware that a large chunk of their wardrobe is essentially plastic. More than 60% of the global fiber market is polyester, a carbon-intensive petroleum product which has been refined to the point of doing almost anything we ask of it. It can look like silk, cotton, or soft faux fur, or can be combined with natural materials to improve their performance and lower cost.
But consumers are very aware that the ocean is filling up with plastic. By one estimate, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 unless we course correct. Most of the plastic entering the ocean (86%) comes from Asia, where use of plastic disposables is skyrocketing and collection and recycling infrastructure has yet to be built. Asia is also where 86% of polyester textiles are manufactured.
An obvious solution? Source the raw material for polyester manufacturing right from Asia’s plastic crisis.
Turns out, that’s exactly what fashion companies are doing.
Take the European brand C&A. Polyester accounts for 21% of the material it uses in its clothing, so the company aims to replace virgin polyester made from petroleum with polyester made from certified recycled sources.
In Delhi, the company Conserve India shows the benefit of sourcing materials where you manufacture. The ethical fashion manufacturer pays waste pickers for all manner of plastic waste and has so far transformed 12,000 tonnes of waste into belts and wallets that are sold in fair trade boutiques all over the world. “We use everything that comes into the waste stream,” says the company’s founder Anita Ahuja, an Ashoka Fellow. “Tire tubes, seat belts, fire hoses, cement bags, rice bags, packaging material from bread. For each material we have a different way to process it and a design lab where we experiment, like what kind of shapes and structure the product should have.” Waste-pickers supply 80% of the company’s raw recyclable material. Ahuja plans to release the process her company uses to recycle the plastic waste, so that other companies can use it for bigger environmental impact.
H&M’s spring Conscious Collection featured a blush evening gown made from plastics collected from the shore of Jakarta, Indonesia. Adidas put out a swimwear line made from discarded fishing nets collected from the ocean – one of these giant nets can apparently yield 1,000 swimsuits – and is now using recycled ocean plastic to update its classic shoe designs. In luxury designer Stella McCartney’s latest ad campaign, models dance and pose in front of mounds of landfill garbage to celebrate using polyester from recycled plastic ocean waste.
“Ocean plastic” as defined by fashion companies is a loose term. It’s not possible right now to collect plastic directly from the ocean, because most of it has broken down into far too tiny bits to be efficiently collected. So brands instead are turning to a process that looks more and more like old-fashion recyclables collection – albeit by private textile companies rather than municipal authorities.
Parley, who provides the material for the Parley Ultraboost collection by Adidas, gets its plastic mainly from beach cleanups around the world. But in the Maldives, Parley is working on education and setting up a waste diversion system that goes beyond just cleanup. In Indonesia, where locals tend to bury plastic waste on the beach, Parley is working on raising awareness and providing materials for waste collection. The textile manufacturer Aquafil has relationships with families in the Philippines and Cameroon who collect and sell discarded fishing nets used in ECONYL fabric. Nike is even designing new products based on what is most easily collectable.
In the United States, a few states have adopted deposit-return systems, in which consumers pay extra for bottles, which can be returned to recycling facilities for a refund. This has pushed recycling rates in those states up to 70 to 95%. But in developing countries that struggle to build and maintain basic infrastructure like recycling pick-up, recycled plastic fashion may help them leapfrog right over recycling collections infrastructure, much like private cell phone technology leapfrogged over telephone infrastructure.
By monetizing plastic waste, fashion companies can incentivize the citizens in Indonesia, China, the Philippines, and beyond to collect plastic bottles and fishing nets instead of tossing them by the side of the road or in the ocean, and provide additional income for the world’s poorest coastal residents. The next obvious step is for textile manufacturers to invest in basic plastic waste collection centers, and locate them near to textile manufactures.
As social entrepreneurs and innovative companies experiment with solutions on the ground, the Paris Climate accord is making a carbon tax or cap-and-trade look ever more likely. This would push up the cost of polyester made from virgin petroleum and make recycled polyester look more enticing from a profit perspective.
With fashion conglomerates buying up leather farms and tanneries in order to secure their supply, you may before long see Adidas or C&A-branded recycling containers on your next visit to Bali.
Alden Wicker writes on behalf of the Fabric of Change Initiative, a partnership between Ashoka and C&A Foundation to support social entrepreneurs and bring transformational change to the apparel industry: www.changemakers.com/fabricofchange