Recycled polyester, or rPET, is on the rise in outdoor apparel, enabling brands to dramatically cut the carbon footprint of their products. But is there enough supplies for the growing demand? And in a branch where performance is key, how does rPET hold up against wind, rain and other forces of nature?
It should be stated first: there are other textiles that are made from recycled materials on an industrial level. Nylon from used fishing nets, cotton from used clothes, for instance. And new innovations are on their way. But compared to recycled polyester – rPET – those materials are still drips in the ocean. For its winning combination of performance, availability and price, polyester has grown to become the most widespread fiber in the textile industry, representing 52% of global fiber production in 2020 (1).
Certain polyester-based waste products, such as used PET bottles and textiles, can be recycled and turned into new textiles. Such recycled polyester, or rPET as it is often called, comes with a much lower environmental impact than virgin fossil-based polyester, with as much as a 70% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
At present, just less than 20% of polyester comes from recycled inputs – but this is set to change dramatically. The nonprofit Textile Exchange is rallying the industry to turn the needle, urging its members to reach 45% uptake of rPET by 2025 and 90% by 2030.
Besides major fashion brands like H&M and Gap, signatories of the challenge include several outdoor brands such as Norrøna, Prana, REI, and The North Face, all of which already use considerable portions of recycled polyester in their products and increasingly so.
How does rPET perform?
Yet climate and environmental impact concerns aside, consumers also want products that meet their needs. Most will not hesitate to purchase a t-shirt containing recycled content, as nothing is at stake. But can recycled polyester be trusted to perform in the harsh environments, where one’s equipment can make or break a summit-attempt or a meticulously planned expedition?
Few outdoor brands can claim the same level of recycled fiber uptake as Patagonia, which uses recycled materials in 95% of its Spring 23 collection. Patagonia is also arguably the brand that started the trend to begin with when it became the first outdoor clothing manufacturer to transform waste PET bottles into fleece back in 1993.
Today, recycled polyester accounts for 88% of its polyester fabrics, which Patagonia estimates avoids 2 million kg CO2e that would have been emitted into the atmosphere had they chosen virgin polyester. And as it is used in everything from hard shells to baselayers to boardshorts, Patagonia’s support can be seen as a major vote of confidence for this fiber:
“For almost all products, performance is just as good with recycled fabrics, so there is no excuse for brands to not step up,” shares Patagonia Alpine Ambassador Jon Bracey who leads the field testing program in Europe.
“At present, the price of new plastics doesn’t reflect their impact on the planet, and this needs to change.”
Mechanical vs. Chemical recycling
Though their degree of commitment may differ, most outdoor brands now see that rPET’s time has come and that it is the obvious alternative to virgin polyester.
Another signatory of the 2025 Recycled Polyester Challenge is the ingredient brand Sympatex, a leading provider of waterproof and breathable membranes containing recycled content. Despite the high performance requirements this technical material faces, Sympatex is confident in rPET’s ability to deliver:
“We have been offering our customers satisfactory solutions in the performance area with recycled laminates for many years now,” shares Carina Dietrich, Brand Management & Business Development Lead at Sympatex.
“Recycled materials meet our high standards in many respects (in terms of performance, sustainability, social and toxicity standards, etc.), so they now make up a large part of our standard portfolio. We are well on the way to achieving our corporate goal of closing the loop 100 percent by 2030.”
But on this journey Sympatex has, like many others, come to understand that there are substantial strengths and limitations to the two key methods of recycling polyester: Mechanical and chemical.
Mechanical recycling, as its name suggests, uses a mechanical method of breaking down used plastics into small chips or pellets that can then be respun into fibers. Also true to its namesake, chemical recycling employs chemicals that take used plastics and breaks them down into their elements.
Mechanical recycling has the advantage of being a simple, cost-effective technology, but raw materials must first be thoroughly cleaned or risk adding impurities to the final fiber. Chemical recycling, meanwhile, effectively purifies even polluted plastics and results in a final fiber that is essentially as good as virgin fibers. On the other hand, the technology is difficult to scale up and demands far greater energy consumption.
While both methods produce less greenhouse gas emissions than virgin fossil-based polyester, mechanical recycling produces the least and is currently the method of choice in the industry. As Carina Dietrich expands:
“Mechanical recycling technologies for polyester are well developed and have been around for many years, there’s effective collection of feedstocks such as PET bottles in a variety of global locations, and there’s a supply chain already using and implementing recycled polyester materials.”
PET bottle bottleneck looming?
But while many are eager to jump onto the rPET bandwagon, not everyone is equally optimistic about its future prospects. The superior quality, lower cost, and accessibility of rPET made from mechanically recycled PET bottles has many worried of a looming supply bottleneck (pun intended), as increasing demand from inside and outside the textile industry may likely soon exceed supply.
Moreover, while PET bottles can be recycled back into new PET bottles indefinitely, recycling them into textiles is currently a dead end, whereby most textiles still end up in landfills at the end of life.
This is why there is a growing level of investment into developing secondary waste streams that include the textile industry’s own waste, whereby used consumer textiles can be chemically recycled into new fibers.
Though realistic about the challenge that this represents, Dr. Kate Riley, Fiber & Materials Strategy Lead: Synthetics at Textile Exchange, has no doubt that the realization of commercial chemical textiles recycling is an absolute must:
“To get us where we need to go in terms of climate targets, we must make a transition from bottle feedstocks to textile feedstocks. We see exciting developments happening, but there are still limitations regarding capacity and commercial implementation.”
What consumers want – and need to know
But while these challenges continue to be wrestled with behind the scenes, how is rPET being received by the end-user? One Swedish brand, Fjällräven, has built a reputation for durability in particular and approximately 80% of the polyester it uses is already recycled. With a diverse collection that ranges from alpine gear to urban wear, Fjällräven also has its finger to the pulse on what it takes to not only make recycled products, but also how to sell them to a broad market.
“It has been fairly easy to replace virgin polyester with recycled in most products we make today when it comes to a quality perspective,” shares Johanna Mollberg, R&D Product Developer at Fjällräven.
“We find that insofar as sustainability topics go, it’s also a fairly easy thing for a company to communicate and for a consumer to understand.”
But while Fjällräven pursues ambitious levels of rPET in its products, Johanna Mollberg warns that consumers need be aware this is not always the case with others:
“One important question a consumer should ask is how big a portion of the fabric is actually recycled. Garments can be branded and communicated as recycled, even if only a small portion of it is recycled.”
Here, certifications are key. Textile Exchange is responsible for the Global Recycled Standard (GRS), which is the most common standard for recycled content across the industry. When consumers see the GRS on a product’s hangtag, this means that the raw materials have been tracked throughout the supply chain to ensure the actual recycled content of the fabric as well as that social and environmental criteria were met in its production.
Stories of false recycled content claims are indeed on the rise, and Dr. Kate Riley agrees with Johanna Mollberg that consumers must be wary of actors seeking to take advantage of a growing conscious consumer movement:
“Certifications are a great tool for consumers to have increased confidence in recycled materials.”
About Recycled Polyester
Recycled polyester is a synthetic fiber made from discarded plastic bottles, industrial waste, and other polyester products. The process of converting these materials into new polyester fibers involves cleaning, melting, and reforming the waste materials into new fibers. This process reduces the amount of plastic waste in landfills and oceans, conserves energy and resources, and reduces carbon emissions compared to the production of new polyester fibers.
Lead Photo: Andrew Burr / Patagonia
 Textile exchange, 2021. “Preferred Fiber & Materials Market Report.”
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