In the first half of the year, before the specter of the delta variant arose, consumers were in a liberated mood. Along with airline tickets and high heels, swimsuits became must-haves for shoppers eager to escape quarantine. Globally, consumers spent $2.7 billion on swimwear in the first half of 2021 — a 19% jump from the same period in 2019, according to industry analysts at NPD Group.
For decades now, most swimsuits have been made with Spandex, which was invented by materials scientists at DuPont in 1959 as a lighter, more breathable alternative to rubber. The petroleum-based material quickly became standard in the apparel industry, and in 1972, Speedo became the first company to sell Spandex swimwear. As of 2017, polyester and Spandex make up about 65% of the fabrics used in the swimwear market, according to Allied Market Research.
As new bikinis, one-pieces, and briefs rotate into people’s wardrobes, the worn-out ones typically wind up in landfills. “Spandex is a very difficult material to recycle,” says Shannon Bergstrom, sustainability brand manager at Recycle Track Systems. The synthetic fibers are too short for mechanical processes to sort, and no effective chemical methods yet exist to recover the used material. Consumers can always donate or resell used suits, but there’s no guarantee anyone will buy them, even if they’re new with tags. “I’m hopeful that companies will pick up the bill to create solutions,” Bergstrom adds.
Some are trying. The Lycra Company’s EcoMade line includes fibers drawn from pre-consumer Spandex scraps as well as blends of recycled polyethylene terephthalate, a common plastic. Speedo sells souped-up performance suits in chlorine-resistant Spandex and Lycra’s Xtra Life fiber, which promises to last longer than conventional fibers, thereby creating less waste. Perhaps the most popular among boutique and fashion-oriented swimwear lines is Econyl, made by the decade-old Aquafil, which recovers fishing nets from oceans and industrial carpets from landfills to spin into yarn.
“Swimwear is our biggest challenge,” says Dana Davis, head of sustainability at the eco-conscious brand Mara Hoffman. The company designs its suits with Econyl and Repreve, a performance fiber made from recycled materials such as plastic bottles, and will soon work with another recycled nylon called Q-Nova. “We’re not taking virgin fossil fuels,” Davis says, “but let’s be honest, this isn’t the end all be all. There’s no way to take a swimsuit and recycle it into another swimsuit.” Plus, Davis points out, these recycled plastic suits release microplastics into the water supply just like brand new Spandex.
The brands using Econyl and Repreve hope those products’ parent companies figure out how the materials can be further reused, and soon. “We’re emailing them quite often to find out when we can recycle these materials,” says Abigail Lorick, creative director at sustainable swimwear line Ansea. “Our big goal for 2021 is to figure out how we can start taking back end-of-life swimwear.”
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