Real Talk About Using Recycled Materials

Why using recycled materials is difficult and expensive, and how we’re doing it anyway.

Alex Lauver had an idea—but he decided to keep it to himself for a while, just in case. He wanted to get more recycled materials into OR’s jackets, but as a product manager he was well aware of the cost and sourcing barriers. So instead of making a formal presentation to the leadership team first, he decided to forge ahead quietly on his experiment and ask for forgiveness later if necessary. Turns out, no forgiveness was needed.

When Alex presented the fall 2018 plans for review, there was no way anyone could object—he had transformed OR’s biggest down and synthetic jacket collections (Transcendent Down and Vertical X) to include significant amounts of recycled materials in both fabrics and insulation. By negotiating on the materials, he was able to offset the increased cost of insulation with a reduction on fabric, keeping the collections affordable. It was a proof of concept: There’s no excuse not to use recycled materials, you just have to do some extra homework.

We all know why using recycled materials is good. But most of us don’t know how it works—why it can actually be pretty difficult. We chatted with Alex—who is now director of commercial innovation, by the way—to get the scoop on exactly what that process looks like.

Where do our recycled materials actually come from? Why don’t we use more?

The most-used materials in outdoor clothing are polyester and nylon. Recycling polyester for use in clothing is pretty straightforward, Alex says. “It's rPET, recycled PET bottles.” It takes only a handful of bottles to make a large t-shirt.

“A 2017 study shows rPET uses 59% less energy compared to virgin polyester, and saves 79% in CO2 emissions,” Alex says. “Also, a lot less crude oil is required. So those are really good specific things. The real challenge here from rPET is there are some studies coming out now about toxic chemicals possibly leaching out after the recycling process.”

That’s one of the rubs: “Recycled” sounds great, but the process isn’t always straightforward, and can also require lots of energy and water, not to mention releasing other chemicals. Materials like polyester and nylon are not like ice cubes that can be melted and refrozen over and over and over, while maintaining their core qualities.

Which brings us to nylon, which is not easy or cheap to recycle. Which is a bummer, because nylon makes up a huge amount of the plastic waste found in the ocean. “Mechanical recycling yields very poor quality fabrics,” Alex says. “And chemical recycling is complicated by the nylon chips melting at a lower temperature which is better for thermoforming, but is bad in terms of contamination risks. Plus, you need a ton of water to really thoroughly clean these—it's a lot of energy usage.”

But the good news is technology is advancing, and we’re keeping tabs on it. “The technology advances yearly,” Alex says. “Two or three years ago, they could not recycle cotton. They could not recycle spandex.” Now, it’s been done in a lab and soon it might be more available to industries like outdoor apparel. OR has a long-term plan for transitioning to more recycled materials and more green energy, so each year will be greener than the last.

Are recycled materials as high quality as new materials?

One question Alex often gets when he’s talking about recycled materials, especially polyester, is: Are the resulting recycled materials actually inferior quality?

“No, that's not necessarily the case,” Alex says. If there are cases where tensile strength in the fiber is lowered, it’s simply blended with a bit of virgin polyester. “But that's why so often you do see stuff that's not 100% recycled, because they needed it to improve tensile strength or other qualities.”

Why are recycled materials expensive?

Broadly speaking, recycled materials do simply cost more, Alex says. It actually requires a lot of energy and processing. But if brands are smart, they’ll find ways to offset the costs so they don’t have to pass it on to the consumer. For example, by negotiating the prices and materials in the Transcendent and Vertical X jackets, Alex was able to introduce more recycled materials without raising the cost.

More good news: The more demand there is, the more supply will try to keep up and the prices should lower.

Recycled means recycled, right? Why would we need certifications for that?

Sounds simple, right? But just like any other product claim, it’s only as trustworthy as it is traceable. That’s why OR is preferring—and will soon only use—material that’s certified GRS, Global Recycle Standard.

How can we do better?

It all comes down to this: The recycling system is only as good as all of its parts. That means us as consumers doing our part to recycle and buy recycled materials—as well as industries doing the same thing.

You can support industries recycling by voting with your dollars. “Every time you put something into your cart, you should be thinking through, is this better in one way?” Alex says. “If you're buying clothes, is the cotton organic? Is it partially recycled? Was it Bluesign certified? There are all these things you can do when you select the brand and the thing you're going to purchase to make it better in one way.”

We can also take action on the other end of the process by making sure we’re personally recycling as much as possible. Some municipalities—like Seattle—make it easy, with labeled bins on street corners. But some don’t. And that’s where we can make a difference, by pressing our local governments and businesses to recycle more. If we want to use more recycled materials, pushing to have more recycling in the U.S. is a great place to start.

“Go ask your local municipality,” Alex says. “Call up or go visit a transfer station and be like, ‘I want to see where the garbage truck dumps my garbage.’ “

In the end it requires both sides, consumers and industry, to make change. We’re working to do better—thanks for joining us!