Every time I toss a plastic water bottle into the recycling bin I wonder: Could it be this easy for clothing?
While plastics have long-established design, incentives, and collection structures, the clothing industry remains behind—plastic water bottles are recycled at 2x the rate of clothing. What led to such a stark difference? And what could fashion learn from plastics?
What Does Clothing Have to Do with Bottles Anyways?
To a chemical engineer, bottles and articles of clothing are actually quite similar. Plastic water bottles are petroleum-based materials called polyethylene terephthalate or “PET.” More than half of our clothing is also made from fossil-fuel based materials called polyester.
Clothing and plastics are also related from the perspective of the Department of Sanitation. An average consumer throws away 81 pounds of clothing every year and 150 water bottles in that same time. The textile recycling rate is estimated at 13%, while the plastic water bottle recycling rate is more than double at 29%.
Design: It Starts from the Source
Single-use water bottles are the highest-value plastic to recyclers because they are made of clear 100% PET. However, clothing is often composed of blended materials such as polyester-cotton or polyester-spandex. Blends are more difficult to recycle because the materials can not be easily separated.

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