Will polyester recycling become fashionable?

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The Wall Street Journal ran a fascinating article last week on the future of innovation and technology, but it’s not about AI or semiconductors. It’s about old polyester clothes.

These days polyester is in almost every kind of clothing, from cheap to designer. But when people are done with their clothes, 85% goes into landfills or gets incinerated. Very few people are out there making patchwork quilts and rag rugs out of old Adidas windbreakers. This despite the fact that there are chemical processes available that can recycle old poly clothing into new fibers with no loss of desirable physical properties such as strength or flexibility.

Textile producers have now developed processes that use heat, water, pressure, and chemical solvents to break down existing polyester clothes and separate out the dyes, waterproof coatings, and other blended fibers. They resulting goop is then heated up and the liquified polyester is drained off, eventually congealing into chips or chopped into granules that can be reused and turned into fibers for new clothes. The Journal’s Jamie Waters points out that the fiber recycling space has seen a burst of investment and the launch of multiple new start-ups, and big clothing companies like H&M and Zara are expressing intertest in using more recycled polyester in new clothing items.

The history of post-consumer recycling is a mixed one, of course. Just because something can be recycled doesn’t mean that it is actually economically efficient to do so. Many people simple assume that reusing existing materials will be less expensive than producing items from new, virgin materials, but that’s not always the case.

All the way back in 1996 John Tierney (the 2014 Julian L. Simon Award winner) wrote an influential article for The New York Times titled “Recycling Is Garbage,” in which he concluded “Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources.” Last year Tierney wrote a follow-up for the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, reiterating this verdict and citing a report in which even the famed environmental warriors at Greenpeace admitted that recycling household waste – plastics in particular – just doesn’t work.

But while we should be skeptical of municipal recycling mandates that incur more costs than benefits, we shouldn’t forget that recycling has been a part of profit-driven corporate operations for far longer than there’s been an environmental movement. The work of the University of Toronto’s Pierre Desrochers (the 2017 Julian L. Simon Award winner) has documented the history of industrial recycling, the process by which refiners and manufacturers take what had previously been waste byproducts and find profitable new uses for them. In a 2002 article for the journal Industrial and Corporate Change, Prof. Desrochers points out that “…inter‐firm recycling linkages were a dominant characteristic of past economic development.” In other words, corporations have always been reusing and repurposing resources for practical reasons, even without modern sustainability commitments.

So, while man-made textile recycling isn’t automatically going to be scaled up economy-wide just because it’s chemically possible, there is a strong history of manufacturers using resource recycling for practical purposes, even without caring about the virtue-signaling PR benefits. And now that we know polyester recycling is possible without sacrificing its material qualities, those processes will likely only get cheaper and more streamlined in the future.

The companies involved – from fiber makers to collection and processing companies to the clothing brands themselves – will be able to adopt and scale their use of this technology as demand and practicality warrant. How will we know if recycling polyester is actually economically efficient rather than a green gimmick? If customers are willing to buy them at a price that exceeds their production costs, the answer is yes by definition. Especially when the highest-profile companies involved are “fast fashion” brands most often criticized for making clothes that are too cheap.  

This kind of industrial and retail development is an example of what I like to call non-computer tech innovation. Ever since I hit college in the mid-1990s – just as the consumer Internet revolution was taking off – Americans seem to have become obsessed with the idea that anything innovative or technological had to somehow be part of the world of computing and likely connected to the Internet. But that takes a far too narrow view of innovation. Materials engineering, manufacturing processes, behavioral therapy, genetic engineering, pharmaceutical research and many other areas are just as much “tech” as new digital products.

Obviously in the 21st century people working in these areas make use of computers and specialized software like large language models in their research, but the effects of the technology exist very much in the physical world. If you want to experience the immersive virtual reality of the Metaverse or the “mixed-reality” visualizations promised by Apple, you’re going to need a physical headset (and someone is going to need to design, test, and manufacture it). Even creating new advances in robotics has to do with getting the physical parts to work together and stand up to wear and tear as much as it does with the programming.

Technology is simply the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, and those purposes can be anything that human beings find to be of value. Going forward, the biggest innovation of the year is just as likely to end up being advanced plastics recycling as it is a new positronic brain.

We also covered this topic in Episode 38 of the Free the Economy podcast, starting at 4:36.