Two giants of the sportswear industry recently announced they will use recycled polyester in their products. But environmentalists say much more must be done to tackle the growing problem of discarded plastics.

Sportswear brands are constantly competing to offer the most stylish designs in the most high-tech fabrics. But now, they are also trying to outdo each other on environmental credentials. This week, both of the biggest names in the industry announced plans for clothing made from … well, trash.

From next year on, Adidas plans to incorporate marine plastics into clothing and footwear lines, while Nike presented designs for the US women’s national soccer team made of recycled polyester. Around 18 plastic bottles go into the making of each uniform, the company said.

Chemical sponge

According to Greenpeace, around 100 million metric tons of plastic are produced each year. This plastic does not biodegrade – so wherever it ends up, it tends to stick around. About 10 percent of it reaches the sea, where it poses a threat to marine life.

“You only have to walk along the beach after a good strong inland wind to see how much is washed ashore,” Paul Johnston, a marine scientist at Greenpeace, told DW. “It’s a huge problem.”

Perhaps even more problematic than the large pieces you can see, are the smaller ones you can’t. With time, plastic waste is slowly ground down into tiny particles that get dispersed over wide areas, and are consumed by fish and other animals.

Johnston said plastics act as a “chemical sponge,” concentrating pollutants – making for a particularly deadly snack for unsuspecting marine animals.

Adidas told DW that last year, it used roughly 11 million yards of polyester made from recycled plastics, while Nike says it has diverted more than two billion plastic bottles from landfills into recycled polyester since 2010. Adidas was unable to specify what proportion of its polyester use that represents.

A new partnership between Adidas and the design and marine environmental awareness organization Parley for the Oceans will see it begin using fibers specifically molded from plastics collected from the seas.

Better quality fibers

“We are contributing to a great environmental cause, but at the same time we will co-create new fabrics from ocean plastic waste, which we will gradually but constantly integrate into our product,” Adidas told DW.

The company also announced this week that it would no longer be offering plastic bags in its stores.

In Europe, 1.6 million metric tons of plastic is collected and recycled each year, according to industry group Plastics Recyclers Europe (PRE). About a third of this is turned into polyester fibers, with the remainder primarily ending up as packaging.

“The quality of recycled polyester has really gone up over the last year,” PRE’s Antonino Furfari told DW. “We have better filtering processes, which mean we can produced much higher-quality fibers – which has sparked interest from companies like Nike and Adidas.”

A new relationship with plastics?

Furfari said there are several other initiatives that create products and packaging from marine plastics skimmed from the surface of the seas. But he admitted that the technique cannot address the issue of micro-particles.

“If you look at the sheer scale of the problem, I have some doubts as to whether you can make a real dent in it this way,” said Johnston of Greenpeace. “What we need is to prevent this stuff ending up in the sea – and really, a fundamental change in our relationship with plastics, away from the idea that they are disposable material.”

From one point of view, companies using recycled plastic to produce high-quality clothing – rather than packaging that quickly ends up in the trash – are doing just that.

Still, a study has also suggested that synthetic fibers in clothing could themselves be a source of microplastics – which are shed in washing machines and eventually end up in the seas.