She cradles a plastic bottle in her hands like it’s a precious living thing. Her gloved hand turns the bottle over so she can inspect it. Then, with lightning precision her other hand raises a set of clippers, and she removes the colored plastic ring from the bottle’s neck. With a swipe the bottle wrapper is gone too. Then she sets the bottle gently in a basket alongside a hundred others. “Recycling is good for everyone,” she says. “We must love the earth and do our part.”
Doing good, then doing business: GoLite donated 14,000 tech shirts to Ugandan humanitarian aid workers.
This volunteer—a senior citizen— is on the front lines of one of the greatest recycling revolutions in the world at a recycling facility in Taiwan operated by The Tzu Chi Foundation. Founded in 1966 by a Buddhist nun to help alleviate the suffering she saw all around her, Tzu Chi has grown to have presence in the fields of medicine, education, culture, disaster relief, and environmental protection.
Behind the scenes: From bottle to jacket
Their approach to recycling is literally hands-on. The bottles are sorted by color—and this part is key—rid of contaminants, inspected again along a conveyer belt, shredded into chips and graded by quality. The materials then move to a spinning mill to be washed, heat treated, melted into strands and then pellets, and then extruded into fibers of highest quality to be woven into performance textiles. This is why the relaunched GoLite chose to work closely with Tzu Chi and partner mills in their quest to create the finest apparel with the least impact on the environment. Incorporating recycled plastics—of all colors— is key.
What you don't know about recycling
You toss that bottle into the recycling bin and feel good. One less thing bound for a landfill; one more thing set on an alternate course for another useful life. You did that. But not everything in that bin will get recycled. Most, but not all. And given that only an estimated 34 percent of Americans recycle at all and that worldwide only 9 percent of plastic is recycled, this is obviously a bummer.
The reasons are many. To start, here are ones that you can easily counteract. Today.
Some stuff is too dirty. Recycling facilities will divert a grease-stained pizza box with crusts in it to the landfill. Same for a container still partially full of, say, juice or yogurt. (Pro tip: Empty and clean things before tossing in the bin.)
Some stuff can’t be sorted by machines properly, which is why you should resist the urge to smash a can or carton. Stuff is initially sorted by whether that item is two dimensional (flat) or three dimensional. Flatten a beer can, and the robots can’t deal.
Some stuff just plain isn’t recyclable no matter how bad we wish it were. The phenomenon of setting aside something you believe or hope is recyclable, thinking you’re doing a world of good, is called wishful or aspirational recycling, and all it does is introduce contaminants. Common aspirational attempts at recycling include plastic bags, scrap metal, ceramics, light bulbs, drinking glasses, frozen food boxes, and non-recyclable plastics. Throwing this stuff in the bin introduces problems.
Each of these reasons ladders up to the truth that recycled material is a valued commodity, and for a recycling facility to get top dollar for that commodity (and compete with virgin material), it has got to be as pure as possible.
Recycling is big business. Experts predict that the global market for recycled polyethylene terephthalate (or PET, the stuff that soda and water bottles are made from) will reach $10.8 billion by 2025. That’s because myriad industries have emerged which can put recycled PET to use: carpeting, automotive parts, more containers, synthetic apparel, even the fuzz on tennis balls. As these markets grow and more emerge, there’s an increased demand for recycled PET, but, still, some PET bottles get landfilled. In particular, the green ones.
“It’s easier to sell the clear stuff,” said a representative at Boulder Colorado based EcoCycle, one of the country’s most progressive recycling outfits.
“Green bottles and any colored plastics have less demand—because you can’t control the color when you dye it as you can with clear PET—and any plastic with less market demand is more likely to end up in a landfill,” said Caroline MacMillan, Design Director at GoLite.
That’s why the relaunched apparel company started an initiative called GoResponsibly, to address the environmental impact of every product they make.
GoLite: Embracing the unwanted green bottle
“The big picture at GoLite is building a company that, top down, is focused on the environment and , and to have that become the industry standard,” said Josh Clifford, GoLite Brand Manager. “We want to provide a model that can be copied. This is our number one focus, even before product. Because consumers are chomping at the bit for product from a company that is in line with their ideals and environmental consciousness.”
Clifford says that his very first conversation with GoLite, as he was coming on to help lead the brand, was about, of all things, green plastic bottles.
“Other companies have had recycled products for a good while, but in the past quality was often subpar from a performance perspective. Now, though, because of increased demand and factories improving processes, we’re seeing more refined textiles derived from recycled PET. The quality is essentially equal to virgin petroleum fibers, which is awesome.
And so Clifford and GoLite went hunting for areas to collaborate with other likeminded organizations and learn how to improve. They landed on how alternative bottles could play into the mix.
“We worked closely with the Tzu Chi Foundation, an international charity organization that also happens to be Taiwian’s largest recycler,” said Clifford. The bottles are cleaned and caps and labels are removed. It’s time-consuming and effort-driven. “We also looked closely at the sorted green bottles, such as Perrier and Sprite bottles, which are deemed undesirable from a dye perspective. We wondered how these could be leveraged?”
The secret in utilizing recycled PET from green bottles was simple: Be cool with that green tint. The first product to feature it is the ReGreen Windshell, a 30-denier micro-ripstop jacket that packs down to orange size and is comprised entirely of recycled green PET—20 bottles to be exact.
“By building styles that highlight the natural color of the green bottle fabric we’re not only creating another market for these bottles, we’re also reducing the energy required to make the fabric by 50 percent and reducing water consumption by 80 percent,” said MacMillan. “We focused on recycled polyester to begin with because we needed the performance offered by synthetics – lightweight, quick-dry, and frictionless faces for layering. In the future we’ll be looking for more ways to reduce our footprint—blends using other sustainable fibers, low-water dye and printing techniques, eco-DWRs, and more.”
GoLite’s initial line, launching in spring 2019, will be made of 80 percent recycled product (both clear and green PET) with the goal of incorporating half a million recycled plastic bottles.
“The big piece for us is doing our part,” said Clifford. “We’ve been inspired by other companies pushing the envelope to help develop better, more environmental practices.” “When we set out to reintroduce GoLite, we knew we wanted to play a significant role in this effort.” “It’s the expectation of people like you and me, people who love the outdoors, for ‘normal’ to mean doing all a brand can do to lessen the impact of humans on the environment.” That’s why GoLite is choosing to work in concert with others like Tzu Chi, who uphold similar values.
Tzu Chi’s mission mirrors that of GoLite. “Tzu Chi acts on the premise that we can protect the environment by the choices we make and our behaviors as individuals. Living a simpler lifestyle and reducing our carbon footprint is crucial towards living in harmony with Mother Earth.”
“It's been an interesting road so far and challenging. And, we know it will be even more challenging each season. It feels good to create product, such as the ReGreen Windshell, that can be one small step in reducing impact. It’s a start.”
A volunteer sorter at Tzu Chi says it best: “The most important thing is to love the earth. We must recycle and make unwanted things usable again. This is our way of caring for the environment.”