Fleecy Synchilla offers warmth and the chance to recycle in style


Talk about the ultimate in grunge fashion: Patagonia, the California-based maker of ultra-chic, ultra-pricey outdoor clothing, has just unveiled a sweater made of genuine garbage -- plastic soda bottles, to be exact.

It looks and feels pretty much like virgin polyester, but each new "PCR Synchilla Sweater" is made from 25 recycled 2-liter plastic Coca Cola, 7-Up and Cragmont soda bottles.

Patagonia claims the new fleece garments, which began arriving in stores last week, are every bit as functional and stylish as their regular counterparts. Recycling and environmental groups are hailing the new garments as a potential breakthrough in the logjam that has prevented plastic from being recycled as successfully as glass, paper and metal.

And it comes as the plastic industry launches a nationwide advertising campaign aimed at convincing consumers that plastic is environmentally correct.

Patagonia says plastic soda bottles can be converted into fleece for about the same cost as producing traditional fleece from petroleum byproducts. With a price tag of $85 -- same as the normal Synchilla sweater they replaced -- they're selling briskly, the company says.

"It looks nice, it feels nice, and I like the idea of reusing something rather than throwing it away," said Jim Warner, an accountant from Kansas, as he stroked the fabric of the new garment at a Great Pacific/Patagonia store here.

Ventura-based Patagonia, Inc., plans to replace more of its regular "Synchilla" fleece jackets and sweaters in coming years with those made from recycled plastic bottles.

Two years ago, Patagonia, which regularly donates 1 percent of its gross sales to grass-roots environmental groups, undertook a review to determine the environmental cost of producing its clothing. Said founder Yvon Chouinard: "Everything we make pollutes."

As word of the review circulated in the industry, Patagonia was approached by Wellman Inc., the nation's recycled plastic processing firm, about its new EcoSpun fabric, made from recycled polyethylene terephthalate -- the plastic used in soda bottles.

Wellman takes old bottles, cleans them, melts them down and extrudes them into fibers that can be spun into yarns.

During the last two years, Wellman has processed more than 240,000 tons of recycled polyester, including 2 billion plastic soda bottles. According to Scientific Certification Systems, an Oakland-based private evaluator of environmental claims, this saved 1.3 million barrels of oil and eliminated 730,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

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