Welcome to the world of wearable plastic

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Back in the 1860s, when Scarlet O’Hara pulled down her velvet parlour curtains to stitch an elaborate evening gown for herself in hard times, the fiery Gone with the Wind heroine was simply ‘sewing’ the seeds of recycling in an era of economic gloom.

Today, in an age of environmental doom, we often see oddball green couture such as dresses created from newspapers, ball gowns fashioned from foil and skirts crafted out of rubber gloves. This kind of apparel adventurism may not be for everyone, but what if you can get actual garments made from upcycled plastic that looks, and feels, just like fabric?

Which is possible now thanks to a new technology that turns polyethylene te­rephthalate (PET) into we­arable polyester fabric. Pre­valent in the west for a while now, this technofabric is all set to be manufactured in India shortly. By this pr­ocess, PET bottles and food trays are broken down into tiny pellets, and spun into polyester fibre, which is then woven with cotton to make denim and other wearable materials.

Like, for instance, the Waste Less jeans launched by Levis recently. About eight recycled PET bottles go into the making of one pair of jeans. This is part of the company’s plan to repurpose over 3.5 million recycled PET bottles this year. Similarly, Coca Cola is marketing t-shirts, caps and loungewear made from recycled plastic soda bottles blended with cotton.

As of now, Indian manufacturers have been recycling PET for making pillows, mattresses, toy stuffing, upholstery, quilts and carpets. Now with clothing technology coming into the country, it is likely to open up a whole new horizon for the textile industry.

“PET is 100 per cent recyclable and can be transformed into film grade, polyester grade and bottle grade plastic,” said Vimal Kedia, managing director, Manjushree Technopak. “Some leading PET manufacturers are in the process of introducing this technology.” Reliance Industries’ PET manufacturing unit is one such company. A spokesman, while confirming this, said it was “premature now to share more details about the technology and when we will be launching it.”

As and when that happens, Indian companies will be joining the green brigade already making pet-a-porter abroad. Eco-fashion initiatives seem to come largely from small companies that try to come up with affordable alternatives to the wastefulness of the corporate world, so there’s Seattle-based Rethink Fabrics that specialises in sustainable textiles.

According to Rethink, it takes 14 clear plastic bottles to make one men’s shirt and 12 for a women’s shirt. Then there are others like Patagonia that make fleece jackets from soda bottles and Atayne that turns plastic bottles, and even snow crab shells, into high performance sportswear.

The process of creating the fabric involves breaking down the plastic into small strands called filaments. The filaments are then used much like traditional thread to make the clothing. According to experts, turning plastic bottles into high performance recycled polyester material uses 70 per cent less energy compared to virgin polyester fabrics. Not just that, the fabric drapes very well so it could turn out to be a great material to work with for our designers.

As Mumbai designer Kiran Jaisinghani of the label Myoho, sees it: “One of the main benefits of recycled polyester is that it utilises used plastic — which is basically junk — in a practical way. Another advantage of such a fabric is that it is more durable and has more retention when compared with any natural or organic fabric. Also, since the demand for polyester is quite high in India, this could cater to that very well.”

Agrees Delhi’s Gautam Gupta. “Since India is a manufacturing hub for various global brands, this technology could prove quite profitable for the country's fashion industry, as well as the economy. For example, such a technique would enable us to source polyester domestically, that itself will lower the cost of production, making the fabric available at a relatively cheaper price.”

However, the only issue with this fabric is that it’s non-biodegradable. Which means we will need to wait for further technological upgradation to be able to go down the green road fully.

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