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T-shirt recycling is here, and it could transform fashion

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“I’m looking forward to the day when it is normal to turn in your old, favorite T-shirt into a store, then pick up a recycled shirt made from other people’s old favorite shirts,” says Michael Natenshon, founder and CEO of Marine Layer, a San Francisco-based fashion label that is best known for its soft T-shirts. “There’s a kind of poetry to knowing your T-shirt was reincarnated from another T-shirt.”

This reality may be around the corner, thanks to brands like Marine Layer and factories that have been quietly working on designing a new system of fabric recycling. Today, Marine Layer launches a new collection of men’s and women’s T-shirts, called Re-Spun, made up of 50% recycled cotton T-shirts and 50% other sustainably sourced recycled and virgin fibers. The brand partnered with a textile factory in Alicante, Spain, on a new recycling technique that requires no chemicals, dyes, or even water.

[Photos: courtesy Marine Layer]Over the past few decades, engineers have perfected the art of recycling different materials, from plastic to paper to aluminum, allowing us to reincarnate old products into new versions of that very same product. The Evian bottle you tossed in the recycling bin may appear on a shelf at the grocery store a year from now; the magazine you finished over the weekend may reappear on your doorstep in the form of a future issue. (Of course, all of this depends on functioning recycling systems, which, as my colleague Adele Peters points out, rarely work as planned.)

But until recently, there has not been a good way to recycle clothing into new garments. Modern clothes are made of complex textile blends that include both natural and synthetic fibers. They are difficult to break down, since plastic-based nylons and polyesters melt at high temperatures. Also, for much of the last century, clothes were considered durable goods, rather than disposable goods, so the problem of recycling clothes seemed less pressing than recycling, say, plastic bottles. But fast fashion made clothes so cheap that many consumers now think of clothes as disposable. 100 billion pieces of clothing are churned out every year. They may circulate in the economy for a while–perhaps getting resold at a secondhand store or donated–but then they end up in landfills. The average American throws out 80 pounds of textiles a year. Since most clothes contain some synthetic fibers that are not biodegradable, they will sit in landfills forever.

A new era of fashion recycling is finally arriving. A startup called For Days, for instance, has created a T-shirt subscription service that allows customers to return a shirt after they are done wearing it, and the company will recycle that material into new T-shirts. Adidas has launched a new shoe that is designed to be recycled when the customer is done with it. And today, Marine Layer launches a new collection of T-shirts made from customers’ old T-shirts.

[Photo: courtesy Marine........

© Fast Company