Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. It’s a familiar mantra to almost everyone, but it resonates even more deeply with those of us who love the outdoors.
Using recycled materials lessens our need to extract raw materials. Recycled materials also require less energy and water than their virgin counterparts, and allow us to make use of materials that might otherwise end up in a landfill.
This article covers several key aspects about recycling in outdoor gear:
- Recycled plastic (PET polyester): the biggest success story
- Other recycled materials you might find in products
- The difference between “recycled” and “recyclable”
REI.com also lets you select “recycled materials” as an attribute as you shop.
Recycled Plastic in Outdoor Gear
Most outdoor brands will tell you an item’s percentage of recycled polyester in their product information. You may have also seen claims about how many plastic bottles were kept out of a landfill because a product contains recycled content. That’s because most recycled polyester material in outdoor products today started as plastic bottles.
The plastic in those bottles is a polyester called “polyethylene terephthalate (PET),” a polymer that can be “mechanically recycled” by melting it down and transforming it into new polyester fibers. This reborn polyester can be used to create fabrics and insulations for a range of products.
When you’re shopping for outdoor clothing, recycled polyester can be found in any gear that might otherwise have used virgin polyester, including the following:
- Jackets and sleeping bags with synthetic insulations
- Fleece jackets and pullovers
- Water- and wind-resistant shells on jackets and sleeping bags
- All types of clothing, including hats, gloves, socks and wicking base layers
- Towels and blankets
“Chemical recycling” of plastics is also a promising technology, one that offers the potential to create new types of plastics that are chemically indistinguishable from virgin stocks of those plastics. Fittingly, a big success story demonstrating the potential of chemical recycling in outdoor gear involves using this type of recycled plastic to make reusable plastic water bottles.
Other Recycled Materials in Outdoor Gear
Because of nylon’s unique properties, it can be a bit more challenging to recycle than polyester. In addition, there’s not yet a “raw material” feedstock that is as readily available as plastic bottles are for producing recycled polyester. However, recent advancements have made recycled nylon a good option for use in certain types of fabrics. Factory scraps, used fabrics and fishing nets are among the ingredients that go into recycled nylon today.
In general, you can find recycled nylon in any gear that might otherwise have been made out of virgin nylon. That product list is much the same as the list of polyester-containing gear, above, except that nylon is rarely used in synthetic insulations.
Other Recycled Materials
The materials below aren’t widely used in outdoor gear. Nonetheless, you will occasionally find a product that proclaims it contains one of these recycled materials.
Recycled steel and aluminum: The majority of new steel and aluminum in the U.S. today comes from scrap steel and recycled cans. The practice is so common now that many products that contain these materials don’t list a percentage of recycled content.
Recycled cotton, wool and down: Limited amounts of these natural materials get recycled or reclaimed today. Some outdoor companies, though, are exploring how to incorporate them into their products in order to reduce environmental impacts.
Recycled paper: For outdoor products this is primarily product hangtags and packaging. Many of those are printed on recycled paper, and brands will often list the percentage of recycled paper content somewhere on the hangtag or package.
The source of recycled content is also important. Look for the word “post-consumer,” because that supports recycling by creating a market for paper that’s collected from consumers.
Recycled vs. Recyclable
Sometimes confused with the term “recycled,” “recyclable” has a different meaning. “Recycled” refers to the origin of at least some of the materials in the product when you buy it new, whereas “recyclable” refers to what can be done with a product’s materials after you choose to retire that item.
Much of the recyclable gear and clothing on the market today is made of a single material because recycling a single material is simpler than having to separate a product made from multiple materials into its individual component materials before recycling. In addition, whether you can truly recycle an item will depend on local recycling options where you live. It will also depend on whether there is a market for those materials after they are recycled.
Having gear be both “recyclable” and “recycled” back into new gear is one piece of a larger vision known as a “circular economy,” where, in theory, nothing would ever end up in a landfill because materials either get recycled or composted. Many brands are working hard to make progress toward achieving that vision, and a few have concept products designed specifically to allow them to be recycled into gear at the end of their initial lifespan. We hope and expect to see an increase in recyclable gear and clothing made from recycled materials in the coming years.
REI Product Impact Standards
REI has established the REI Product Impact Standards, which apply to all brands and products sold at the co-op. These standards outline our expectations of all brands sold at REI regarding how key environmental, social and animal welfare impacts are managed. The standards also identify preferred attributes—the most credible, relevant and impactful features that support positive impacts across our product offering. We encourage brand partners to use for their products, including standards covered in this article. Look for products with these features while shopping at REI to help support better ways of making gear.
To learn about all of REI Co-Op’s sustainability initiatives, read our online Product Sustainability report.