How the Plastic Bottle in Your Recycling Bin Becomes Polyester

The Lab,  
Taylor Coil

The world has a lot of plastic. It floats in our oceans, killing sea life. It sits in our landfills, resolutely refusing to break down. We are drowning in the stuff… and we keep making more of it.

Plastic’s durability can be its greatest liability. Or, if we give existing plastics new life, durability can be its greatest strength.

You’ve probably seen tons of products made from recycled plastic — perhaps leggings (Girlfriend), or shoes (Rothy’s), or puffy coats (Everlane). Add Tortuga to that list.

Enter: Recycled Fabrics

Our most popular travel backpacks are made from 900D polyester – a synthetic material made from plastic fibers. Typically, fiber manufacturers use virgin plastic (i.e. non-recycled plastic) to create polyester. Virgin polyester starts as a fossil fuel.

But things are starting to change. Mills all over the world are taking post-consumer plastic — the stuff in your recycling bin right now — and transforming it into high-quality, durable, functional fiber.

If we can maintain our brand’s high standards for function and durability and layer in our personal goals of sustainability, we will.

We want you to feel great about the travel backpack you reach for every time you travel. Because it’s the best bag you’ve ever carried, and because you’re making sustainable, ethical choices.

REPREVE, our recycled fiber partner, is an industry leader in the recycled fabric industry and provides fibers for some of the world’s most well-known companies. Add Tortuga to that list. In 2016, we started by replacing all liner fabric with recycled material. In March, we’re launching black and navy versions of the 35L and 45L Setout Backpack in a REPREVE-certified outer fabric made from recycled plastic bottles.

 

We chose REPREVE for their commitment to quality, strict recycling verification standards, and impressive library of fibers suitable for use in travel backpacks.

The fact that I live a mere hour’s drive from REPREVE’s headquarters is a happy coincidence. I recently drove through the countryside of North Carolina to REPREVE’s factories to learn how exactly recycled water bottles become the fabric that makes up our travel backpacks.

The Process of Creating Recycled Fiber

Going from the contents of your recycling bin to a high-quality fiber is a lengthy process.

Cleaning and Sorting

Plastic bottles come to recycling facilities in “bales” – large compressed cubes that are sort of like hay bales, but… plastic.

My mom grew up on a cattle farm, so I’ve climbed many a hay bale in my life. This was my first time climbing plastic bales. It was less itchy than hay, but didn’t smell as nice.

The bales are loaded onto a machine and taken apart. The plastic is first sorted into different colors. Colored plastic, like green Mountain Dew bottles, will be used in industrial projects (like sound barrier insulation) as it can’t be dyed. Clear plastic is more versatile and can be repurposed as fabric.

Once the plastic is sorted by color, the labels and bottle caps are removed and the plastic goes through a first round of cleaning.

Flaking

Once clean, the individual bottles are shredded into flakes – 1cm wide chips of plastic. I expected the flaking room to be loud – what else could a giant machine grinding plastic be – but I didn’t expect it to be so loud that the flaking machine was hidden behind soundproof walls. Even so, the woman giving me a tour had to shout in my ear to tell me what was behind the concrete.

 

Flaking allows for a quicker and more even melting process, reducing energy expended via heat and improving consistency (and therefore quality). You know how you chop a bar of chocolate before melting it for baking, because melting the entire bar takes longer and the end result would be clumpy and inconsistent? Same idea.

Melting and Chipping

The flakes are washed and dried, then heated to a liquid state. The liquid plastic is pressed through a machine that looks like a Play-Doh toy I had as a child to form long strands. The strands are cooled and cut into small pieces called “chips.”

 

The chipping process removes all the air bubbles and moisture from the plastic to ensure a higher level of strength and durability at the fiber level. Moisture or air bubbles can mean yarn breakage. And we don’t want that.

Extrusion

The short strands of plastic are melted down and formed again, this time into ultra-fine strands called filaments. The filaments are formed via a machine that looks like a shower head and cooled on the way down.

 

This time, the strands are continuous, not cut into chips.

Spinning

The filaments are spun into yarn, texturized, and wound onto spools. The spools are then shipped to a mill that weaves the fiber into a finished fabric.

The Environmental Impact

Obviously, using recycled plastic to make polyester reduces the amount of virgin plastic in the world. But it’s more than that.

According to a study REPREVE published in 2014, manufacturing recycled polyester versus virgin polyester:

  • Reduces energy consumption by 45%
  • Reduces water consumption by nearly 20%
  • Reduces greenhouse gas emissions by over 30%

All of that without sacrificing quality, durability, or performance.

Fabric technology has come a long way.

Want in on this?

 The black and navy colorways of the Setout Backpack, which are made from recycled water bottles, are now available.