Why throw your water bottle away when you can wear it
Plastic bottles are a source of pollution when thrown away, but they can be a source of new fabric when properly recycled.
A growing number of chemical and textile companies in Korea are finding new opportunities to manufacture environmentally friendly textiles with discarded plastic bottles which are then made into apparel, shoes and bags among others.
These eco-friendly textiles may be more expensive then their chemical-made counterparts, but their quality as well as growing consciousness about the environment among consumers are giving them a greater chance to establish themselves as a substantial business.
According to the Korea Chemical Fibers Association, global production of all types of polyester has showed little growth since 2017. Its output was at 57.1 million tons in 2020 compared to 55.1 million tons in 2018.
Of the total, the portion of recycled polyester continued to grow from 13 percent to 15 percent between 2018 and 2020.
U.S. market tracker Grand View Research also projected the eco-friendly fiber market to reach $700 billion by 2025, expanding at an average rate of 10 percent per year.
In Korea, Hyosung TNC, best known for its spandex product, has been pioneering the market.
In 2008, the company launched a separate brand for eco-friendly textiles — nylon, polyester and spandex — under the name Regen and has been sourcing its products to various fashion labels ranging from outdoor brands like North Face and National Geographic to a trendier handbag brand Pleats Mama.
Hyosung TNC mechanically recycles which means the collected plastic bottles, after being cleaned of residue, labels and caps, are shredded into small rice-sized flakes and melted down to create thread.
Their initial color is white but can be colored into 30 different shades, according to the company.
For a stable supply of plastic bottles, Hyosung TNC is collaborating with city governments including on Jeju Island and in Seoul. Its source of textiles has recently extended to plastic bottles and fish nets collected from the ocean by joining forces with Yeosu Gwangyang Port Authority.
"The most popular products of all the collaborations we did with fashion brands were hoodies made by North Face with collected discarded Samdasoo water bottles from Jeju Island," said a spokeswoman from Hyosung. "In particular, the MZ Generation who consider value consumption important received the products well."
Most recently, Hyosung launched its own fashion brand G3H10 as the demand for eco-friendly apparel continues to grow.
Hyosung TNC's sales from Regen products rose by 10 fold from 2016 to 2020. It accounts for more than 50 percent of the eco-friendly textile market in Korea and is in the No. 1 spot in terms of sales, the company said.
Another method to make eco-friendly textiles is chemical recycling which breaks down the plastics into molecule units, converting the waste to virgin material. This method is known to improve the quality of the remade textiles.
"In case of mechanical recycling, there is a possibility for defects such as threads snapping due to contamination of external materials in the creation process," the spokesman for SK Chemical said.
"For chemical recycling, it takes away such defect possibility because the procedure returns the plastics back to their virgin level."
SK Chemical is the first company in Korea to succeed in chemically recycling plastic waste.
It invested 23 billion won and acquired 10 percent of China's Shuye last year to source materials needed to make recycled textiles and launched recycled polyester thread brand Ecoever last year in partnership with local textile company Huvis.
One of the main boosters behind the initiation of such new business is support from consumers.
Apparel made of recycled textiles prove to be popular among consumers who are increasingly becoming environmentally conscious.
Outdoor brand North Face is one of the most active fashion labels utilizing eco-friendly textiles.
In fact, the uniforms worn by Team Korea at the recently-ended 2022 Winter Beijing Olympics were made by North Face and mostly made of recycled textiles.
Among 19 types of apparels provided to each athlete, including jackets, gloves, shoes and hats, 16 of them were made of environmentally friendly materials, according to the company.
"Some 200 500-milliliter plastic bottles were used to make a set of uniforms for each athlete," said a spokesman for North Face's Korean unit.
"From the perspective of making the end product, the recycled products don't fall behind in terms of texture, quality or functionality. People's spending on 'value' has been increasing since 2018 and the response to our environmentally friendly apparel has been positive."
North Face started selling replicas of select versions of Team Korea's uniforms — all of which are made from plastic bottles. The initial quantity of the jacket adorned with a V-shaped pattern is already sold out on the company's official website.
BY JIN EUN-SOO [email@example.com]