Recycling Water Bottles Will Never Go Out of Style

In the fashion and auto industries, recycling water bottles into ballgowns or car parts is the latest trend to follow the push to reuse paper, plastic and electronics.
Jun 1, 2016 3:35 PM ET
Campaign: GM Waste Reduction
Dresses made of recycled plastic are a little more fashionable than this one made of bags. Photograph: Vizerskaya/Getty Images

Recycling Water Bottles Will Never Go Out of Style

When the actress Emma Watson stepped onto the red carpet in a gown made of repurposed water bottles at the Met Gala in early May, she established both the versatility and the durability of a new trend in recycling. 

Americans use about 50bn plastic water bottles each year, and 38m of those end up in landfills, where they can take up to 1,000 years to decompose. But in a matter of weeks, a recycled water bottle can be made into a lumber alternative, polyester, stadium seating, car parts – or even a dress fit for a gala that’s earned a reputation as “fashion’s Oscars”

The body of Watson’s ballgown for the Met ball was made of three different fabrics, all woven from a material made out of recycled plastic water bottles. The bottles were shredded, heated and melted into a filament yarn that was compressed and stretched into a raw polyester thread. The dress was designed by Calvin Klein as part of the Green Carpet Challenge organized by Eco Age, an environmental brand consultancy.

Water bottles can also be repurposed into a fabric called Eudae, which is created out of eucalyptus plants, recycled plastic and Tencel, a sustainable fiber made from wood. Pistol Lake, a sportswear manufacturer, uses about 10 bottles in the amount of Eudae that’s needed for one long-sleeved shirt.

Besides fashion, the auto industry is also stepping up its commitment to reusing plastic water containers. General Motors recently announced that it will use employees’ recycled bottles to create the noise-reducing fabric insulators that cover the Chevrolet Equinox v6 engine.

The bottles are collected from five of GM’s Michigan facilities. In addition to the engine cover, these recycled water bottles also create an insulation used in multipurpose coats for the homeless. These coats, made by the Empowerment Plan, can be converted into sleeping bags and rolled up into a backpack.

Paper and other recyclable items get their due, too

Americans each throw away an average of 4.4lbs of trash every day. Thanks to an increase in recycling efforts, 34.3% of that waste originally intended for a landfill is saved and repurposed – an estimated 87m tons of waste every year.

Because of single-stream collection, sorting recyclables into separate bins is no longer necessary. Manual sorting is still common, although in some cases technology enables magnets and electric currents to collect metals and infrared lasers to shift through different types of paper and plastic. Source separation at an industrial level can be an effective option and lead to revenue opportunities when high volumes are generated.

Paper and plastic are perhaps the two most common recyclable items. Here’s how it’s done.

  • Paper is separated, sorted and shredded, then filtered and washed with chemicals to remove any remaining dirt, glue, ink or other contaminants. The paper solution then heads to a second chemical bath where chemicals and air create bubbles which are used to carry the remnant ink away. After a bleaching process, the material is spread into thin sheets. Once the new paper is dry and smooth, it is cut, packaged and made ready for shipping.
  • Plastics are separated by type and color, then shredded into tiny pieces and cleaned to remove any contaminants. These shredded pieces are melted down into a new shape or made into tiny raw pellets, which will be used to mold new articles.

Once these materials have been repurposed, they are ready to re-enter the market. Some examples of their reincarnation include napkins at Starbucks, car parts and carpets.

Other popular recyclable items include old computer monitors and shoes, and food scraps or garden clippings can be composted. But certain items are not meant for the recycling bin, such as grease-covered cardboard pizza boxes or wet materials like the old newspaper left on your porch. Proper recycling guides are available online or at your local recycling center.