From PET to performance apparel: how sustainable fabrics get made

From PET to performance apparel: how sustainable fabrics get made 

Plastic’s unintended consequences are catching up with the planet. What to do with the ones we use most?

By: Mark Cohen • Sustainability • 04.11.2021

Plastic plays such a pivotal part in daily life that it’s hard to imagine a world without take-away containers, water bottles and car parts. But of all the ones we use routinely, drink packaging is one the world would like to see under wraps, and fast.

Fun fact: humans make ~20,000 plastic bottles every second of every day to package water, soft-drinks, and other consumables. A huge number, right? So what happens with it once it’s done?  

Some of it gets re-used – yes – but we’re swimming in the rest, so industry has created ways to work with the material. The apparel industry, for example, gives PET new life by using it to make clothes. (It’s more sustainable than sourcing virgin fibres as it produces up to 75 per cent less greenhouse gases compared to virgin petroleum PET.) Sidenote: as a performance fibre, it’s also outstanding for endurance sports.  

While by no means a solution or silver bullet, recycling PET to make clothes is a step in the right direction towards extending the lifecycle of bottles. How then does single-use PET go from bottle to performance apparel?   

Precision-crafted tech yarns, not trash  

Most plastic bottles today are made from something called Polyethylene Terephthalate – a highly recyclable compound commonly known as PET. Here’s how we make clothing from it, step by step:  

  • To convert post-consumer bottles into yarn, ODLO works with a company called UNIFI who manages the recycling process end-to-end. They source single-use plastics from landfills, oceans, and recycling depots. 
  • They then sort, wash, and grind the bottles into flakes which are blended, melted, and turned into chips.  
  • Once the chips are stored in giant silos, it gets melted into liquid polymer and extruded through tiny openings in a spinneret, creating continuous filaments. Finally, the fibre becomes something called REPREVE yarn through spinning and air-jet texturing. You’ve likely seen the REPREVE label in board shorts, running shirts – it’s become popular.  
  • With this yarn in hand, we take over and start to create our products which contain sustainable fabric components. 

Using recycled performance apparel  

Recycled fabrics are more sustainable than sourcing virgin fibres. But that’s not the only reason we use them – they happen to also be excellent performance fabrics.  

“Recycled polyester is durable and lightweight, it dries quickly, and it retains its shape well,” adds Dan Pattison, ODLO Category Manager. “It is very low maintenance and can be abused which is still an advantage over other materials. These yarns have uses in many different arenas.” 

If sustainable fabrics are an important part of your process when looking at apparel for your next run or ski trip, look for content details online or ask in-store. It is listed to give you a sense of materials and how much of it was recycled.  

Other ways to make sure we all make products more sustainable is to use them until end-of-life, up-cycle to friends when done, or make sure that when you’re finished with a piece of kit, it is dropped off in-store to be properly looked after (and in some cases, recycled again). 

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