Can You Recycle Synthetic Fabrics?

By Mr. Everest

I admit it. I wear a lot of synthetics. They’re high-performance fabrics that have enabled me to thrive in the world’s coldest, windiest, wettest, and sometimes hottest climates. I’ve spent 25 years working with designers of outdoor clothing to ensure the highest performance possible for the clothes athletes’ and explorers’ lives depend upon. For me, if an outer shell doesn’t protect me from the wind, or if the closest layer to my skin isn’t wicking away my body’s natural moisture, we’re facing system failure in the mountains.

Layered synthetic fabrics keep me and my baby girl warm in the Himalayas. Photo © Liesl Clark

Synthetic fabrics keep me and my baby girl warm in the Himalayas. Photo © Liesl Clark

I’m a lover of natural fibers, too. And they have their place in my closet. But truth be told, when it comes to dealing with climates that are extreme and inclement nothing compares to outerwear built with a nylon laminate water-proof breathable construction. Yet there’s no doubt that the polymers and chemicals involved in creating these fabrics are not doing wonders for the environment. That’s why some companies are making poly fabrics from recycled materials and more importantly from facilities that treat their waste water. It’s cutting down on the use of virgin plastic to some extent, which is making a positive impact.

Approaching the South Col on Everest. Photo © Bill Crouse

Pete Athans approaching the South Col on Everest. Photo © Bill Crouse

According to some estimates, 65% of the fabrics manufactured worldwide are synthetic. And I know from my research on micro-plastics we’re finding on the world’ most remote beaches those synthetic fibers are being shed into our environment through our gray water at an alarming rate. But that’ll be the subject of a later post.

Like anything, the synthetic fabrics I rely upon certainly don’t last in operable condition forever, and eventually they need to be discarded. Yet I don’t want to send them to the landfill. Are synthetic fabrics recyclable? Yes, but like all plastics, their recycling is not a closed loop process and they cannot be recycled over and over again.

My everyday layers. They're synthetic, but they perform well in the extreme outdoors. Photo © Liesl Clark

My everyday layers. They’re synthetic, but they perform well in the extreme outdoors. Photo © Liesl Clark

There are basically 2 types of textile recycling: fiber recycling and polymer recycling. Fiber recycling means your garment is shredded back into fibers that are typically blended with new fibers to make a new yarn for new garments or carpets. Polymer recycling is typically used with polyesters that are shredded and ultimately melted down and turned into plastic pellets that are then are respun into fibers for new polyester applications.

Polyester recycling, one might say, does make a dent in the amount if virgin plastics, or fossil fuels, used in future polyester production. According to The Textile Exchange, “The production of polyester fibers accounts for about 40-45% of total global annual fiber production. Polyester is made from petroleum-based chemicals; its raw material is crude oil, which is the same source as gasoline. Polyester production involves a number of different processes, including refining the oil, breaking it into chemicals, and creating the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) polymer, which is then extruded and spun into polyester fibers. Polyester production is energy-intensive and relies on a finite, non-renewable natural resource that we utilize in many other ways as part of everyday life for energy, fuel, and plastics production. About 65-70 percent of global polyester production is used for textiles, of which more than 65 percent is produced in China. The majority of the remaining 25-30 percent is used in the manufacture of PET beverage bottles.”

This little known fact, that more PET goes into the production of polyester fabrics worldwide than plastic bottles, gives us some perspective. We all know of the plastic bottle campaigns to wean people off consuming single-use water bottles. But if there’s more plastic going into the manufacture of polyester fabrics, we need to up our campaigns to get more people to recycle their polyester and blended synthetic fabrics. (Needless to say, we might also want to consider using more natural fibers like wool when possible. But if I’m climbing rock and ice at 24,000 feet, cotton has no place on my body. )

Pete Athans Climbing the Lhotse Face on Everest. Photo © Bill Crouse

Pete Athans Climbing the Lhotse Face on Everest. Photo © Bill Crouse

85% of all textile waste goes to landfills and according to the EPA an astounding 68 lbs per person heads to the landfill each year. So, what can we do, individually, to reduce our textile waste in general? Here are 3 steps that’ll help you do some good:

1) Be aware of the plastic-content in the fabrics you’re buying and where they will end up at the end of their so-called “life.” I’m excited that The North Face has a new recycling program for all fabrics, including synthetic fabrics found in your outerwear like Goretex jackets, your fleece, and down sweaters. Their Clothes the Loop bins, now found in 10 of their stores, enable you to recycle those garments and get $10 off your next purchase. The synthetic fabrics are turned into new uses like insulation, foam board in the backs of cars, and bricks made of dust.

2) Even your rags should be recycled. Don’t be shy about passing on your totally worn-out, ripped and torn togs to your textile recycler or the Clothes the Loop bin. Any non-wearable garments will be shredded in the end so they’re happy to take your scraps.

Willa loves the warmth of down. Photo © Liesl Clark

Willa loves the warmth of down. Photo © Liesl Clark

3) Reuse: If you don’t have a Clothes the Loop bin near you and you have clothing that can still be worn, consider donating it to a worthy organization nearby like Good Will and the Salvation Army or a local homeless shelter. There’s a great national resource called Donationtown that can help you find the nearest charity that will take your still-in-decent-condition clothing to distribute to those in need. They’ll even come and pick your clothing up.

In our family, we pass on our really warm outerwear to families we know in villages in the high Himalaya who will benefit greatly from receiving a down jacket or child’s snow suit. If you do whatever you can to keep the good clothes in circulation, you’ll be helping to reduce our overall textile waste, worldwide.

Our son loves passing on his warm hand-me-downs to his friends in Nepal. Photo © Pete Athans

Our son loves passing on his warm hand-me-downs to his friends in Nepal. Photo © Pete Athans

There’s also a great do-it-yourself reuse and upcycling movement worldwide, putting clothing and textiles to use in newly-designed items of clothing or even in other home-spun applications like irrigation. To view some of the best of these ideas, please visit our Trash Backwards app for inspiration:

Click Through for Clothing Reuses at Trash Backwards

Click Through for Clothing Reuses at Trash Backwards

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Categories: DIY, Recycle, Repurpose and Reuse, Trash Philanthropy, Trash Pile - All Our Stuff

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8 Comments on “Can You Recycle Synthetic Fabrics?”

  1. Gretel Clark
    March 19, 2013 at 9:17 am #

    I can’t believe the details involved in recycling synthetics.

    • March 22, 2013 at 9:20 am #

      There’s so little information out there for the consumer to understand. We’re planning on taking the lead to best inform people on how to steward their synthetics so they can either benefit another person or be put back into the “loop.”
      — Liesl at Trash Backwards

  2. Beck
    March 19, 2013 at 4:00 pm #

    68 lb. of waste polyester per year per individual begs the question…what impact can we have in recycling only our outerwear? From a “conscience” and a “good vibe” level, yes it makes us feel better, but most of that textile waste is from everyday polyblends. Just a few years ago, the was a 60% cotton-40% polyester blend. In 2013, the majority is a 60% polyester-40% cotton blend. The reason is economics. While cotton is plentiful, the market is constricted by a handful of buyers who purposely buy cotton for reserves, not use raising its market price above polyester fabrics. Fashion designers may believe they decide what factories in China produce, but it the monopoly of that production that controls what fabric is made that designers must work with….

    => http://southeastfarmpress.com/markets/winning-blend-china-big-us-cotton-growers

  3. June 5, 2013 at 6:48 am #

    The percentage of polyester fabric that ends up in a landfill is staggering, and I had no idea it is 85%. Good comment Beck. It is usually about money. I am with the author synthetic fabrics perform better in extreme conditions, but for comfort I like a natural fiber because it just feels better.

    personally, I believe a man can definitely get by with four t-shirts. So, my personal stand is that I get a t-shirt I like wearing and will keep it for 10 years. Take that China.

  4. Chaz
    October 7, 2014 at 9:05 pm #

    Um, you were going in a great direction until this turned into an at for North Face. Face it – syntheitcs, in their current state, aren’t closing the loop on anything – dust bricks? That’s called greenwashing. I understand the economics, but all synthetic fibers are doing through their greenwash-touting of recycled materials is hamstringing bottle-to-bottle recycling from happening.

    • November 6, 2014 at 12:07 pm #

      Hey there, Chaz. Thanks for your comment. There’s no doubt simply not buying synthetic fibers sends a clear message to the manufacturers that we want something more environmentally friendly to keep us warm. But, having spent months at altitude in the world’s highest and coldest places, I have to say there ain’t nothing better than synthetics to keep us alive and well. Their performance and portability just makes them the better choice. When they reach the end of their life, we look into the best options for disposal and The North Face’s Clothes the Loop bins are a great option, per our research and many many uses of their boxes.

      • Fergus
        October 11, 2016 at 1:52 pm #

        8000m is never the simple life!

        Thanks for the article.

        I live in Ecuador, and there its actually very hard to buy any item that’s not synthetic. When climbing mountains, I can’t really avoid a synthetic shell… but boots, socks, jumpers can generally all be mostly natural except in the most extreme conditions. Yet these can be hard to find.

        What happens to mixed fabrics? How does a recycling plant recycle a 50/50 merino/synthetic jumper?

  5. Chelsea
    September 30, 2015 at 12:46 pm #

    This is fantastic information. I was just reading about a Seattle company that recycles cotton fiber and it got me wondering about whether other clothing fibers are recyclable.

    Thanks! Here’s the article about recycled cotton, in case anyone is interested: http://ecogoodz.com/blog/mixed-rags-to-riches/

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