Turning plastics into clothing

In the UK we throw away billions of plastic bottles every year. We’re getting much better at recycling them, but did you know that they can also be turned into clothing? This amazing process starts here at the bottle recycling center.

The first stage is shredding. When you throw away your bottle you often leave a small amount of drink inside. Shredding all the bottles releases the unwanted liquid, so it doesn’t affect the quality of the plastic. The shredded bottles are then wrapped in cellophane and boxed up ready to be shipped around the world. It may be rubbish to us, but to the Chinese textile industry, this plastic waste is a valuable commodity. Recycled bottles arrived from all over the world to feed the busy clothing industry. Sorting separates the clear plastic from the coloured stuff.

Clear plastic can be made into white clothes or material that can be dyed so it’s extremely valuable. Most clear plastic bottles have coloured lids and stickers on them but these have got to go, so the bottles head for the baths.

The coloured curves are made of a different plastic which floats. A worker can then strain them off the top. Then there’s a separate bath for the stickers, but the workers have to be careful around this one. It’s corrosive caustic soda is very bad for the skin but very good for removing labels.

After all they’re swimming what’s left is a pile of clear plastic shreds. The next step is the ovens, where it’s mixed with some light colored plastics. To produce white cloth you need some light shaded material. In the mix, the plastic will spend about 10 hours here in rotating drums, slowly drying out. Workers have to manoeuvre their cart back and forth underneath the drums to catch the plastic as it falls out, but they’ve also got to mind their heads on all the other spinning ovens.

The plastic bottles broken down and mixed to produce the right colours. But it’s very hard to weave cloth from bits and pieces so another step is needed. The mixture is sent through the rotating screw where it’s heated to 270 degrees Celsius. This melds the plastic but to make cloth, we don’t want a big lump. The liquid plastic is forced through a sieve and emerges on the other side as great long strings, which are collected in a container below. We’ve now got thread but it isn’t strong enough to make cloth yet.

First it must be combined and stretched several times while being heated. This will bond the fibers together. Now it’s taken ages to produce this material but the next part of the process is to tear it apart again. The fluff that emerges is the raw substance you need to make polyester. However that takes place in another factory altogether, so workers bail it up and send it on. It looks like cotton wool but it’s an entirely man-made substance created from your old bottles. It is then scraped onto a very rough cloth ready to be carded. Carding is where the bonded fibers are brushed together so they all lie in a similar direction, which strengthens the material. The sheet of polyester felt that emerges is now ready to be turned into thread. Machines will tease it out, spinning off mile after mile of pure polyester, which is collected on bobbins. Finally plastic bottles become cloth like a spider at the center of its web.

The loom draws in thousands of threads and weaves a new sheet of polyester to give it a smoother feel.

There are still two more processes to go through. The first is very delicate. One machine creates tiny loops on its surface. The second stage is the opposite. Using a series of tough steel brushes, spinning rollers catch and tear all the carefully made loops. The shredded surface helps give the material a soft furry feel, making it far more comfortable to the touch.

Material stylus is used to mark out the latest designs. The pieces will then be sent to workers who turn your trash into the trendiest gear you can find on the high street. So what started out as your rubbish was carefully sorted then shredded and turned into cloth. That cloth was shredded into fluff, spun into thread and turned into fashion from plastic bottles to polyester clothing.