One of the most frequently asked questions I get when pitching Thread is “what happens if you run out of plastic to recycle?”
At Thread we take plastic waste from Haiti, Honduras and Taiwan; transform it into recycled polyester; then make this material available to apparel and footwear brands such as Reebok, Aerie, Marmot and Timberland. Recently, we designed and launched our first Thread-branded, direct-to-consumer product: A Better Backpack, which we’re proud to say is doing great on Kickstarter.
The hypothetical question of running out of plastic is a good one, except that it shows the disconnect between most consumers’ knowledge of this material and the reality of how much plastic exists in the world. I would love to face this challenge (of running out) and grow our business model to transform other abundant waste streams. However, even after we begin working with other types of waste, we won’t run out of plastic in my lifetime. We just won’t.
There is more than 9 billion tons of plastic waste in the world. 91 percent of that is not recycled. This causes at least 26 million tons of plastic to flow into our oceans every year, the rest sitting in landfills or clogging the streets and canals of neighborhoods with minimal waste infrastructure. Despite the staggering amounts of this material outlined above, 1 million plastic bottles are purchased every minute.
Are reusable water bottles the new status symbol?
While it is becoming trendier in richer communities to eschew single-use plastic for beautifully designed reusable containers, in many places, the only way to access safe drinking water and food is through the use of plastic packaging. Despite plastic bans and proposed policy, the production and consumption of plastic isn’t slowing down. Even if we stopped all virgin plastic production tomorrow, we still have the aforementioned 9 billion tons of existing material to deal with.
Luckily, this material can be as useful as it is problematic. If we begin to treat plastic as the renewable resource it has become, we have the opportunity to stimulate economies, reduce the need for virgin inputs, and reduce the harmful consequences of plastic litter. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that a circular economy trajectory could bring India annual benefits of $624 billion by 2050, while reducing negative externalities such as greenhouse gas emissions. This could have similarly massive benefits for countries around the world.
Recycled polyester is not new, and is an outlet for only one type of plastic (Polyethylene terephthalate, commonly abbreviated as PET), but the model of upcycling single-use plastic into more durable and lasting products can and should be replicated as much as possible.
Investing in the first mile of recycling
What sets Thread material apart from other recycled plastic bottles is that we can tell you not only what country the material was sourced from, but the network of people responsible for picking it up. In a lot of places, recycling is still an informal, unregulated industry. This means the collection of recyclable materials can be host to a number of human rights violations including child labor and hazardous working conditions. Thread invests directly into the First Mile of every one of our supply chains, bringing dignity and opportunity to recycling at the collection level.
At Thread, we have big plans for the Better Backpack and what follows it, built on the foundation of everything I have said here. While progress is being made, we're still disappointed by what's being offered by the apparel industry right now. There's a lot of lip service to good materials and good supply chains, but there is still a massive need for more companies that make stuff that looks great; fits you at every moment of your day; and uses sustainable, responsible materials on a massive scale.
Recycling is far from a perfect solution, but I believe we are at a point in global sustainability when perfection cannot be the enemy of good. We should all reduce and reuse before we recycle. We should cut down on plastic production and consumption. The reality, however, is that we are not running out of plastic anytime soon — and until that day comes, we need to do something responsible with it today, tomorrow and however long it takes to eliminate the problem. For now, a Better Backpack is at least one solid step in the right direction.