Recycled fashion: T-shirts made from soda bottles

Barreling down the highway in his eight-cylinder black Mustang, radar detector aglow and cellular phone by his side, Steven King hardly cuts the image of an ecological crusader.

But looks can be deceiving. Consider the clothing on the 26-year-old entrepreneur's back.


What appears to be a normal T-shirt in fact contains the remains of about five plastic soda bottles. It's among a growing array of garments made from recycled polyester.

The clothing, manufactured in North Carolina and sold by several companies nationwide, is targeted at the growing number of environmentally conscious consumers.


Mr. King, founder of a company called E-Wear USA, has sent T-shirts to Bill Clinton and Al Gore. The vice president wrote back praising Mr. King's passion for preserving the planet -- and requesting the young man's political support.

Mr. King swears his polyester is as comfortable as cotton, though a day in an E-Wear shirt produces an itch for natural fibers. He also talks of a time when old shirts will be tossed into a bin and recycled.

The 1992 University of South Florida marketing major used to race gas-guzzling speedboats off the Florida coast. His recent environmental epiphany had a financial twist: About a year ago a chemical engineer told him soda bottles could be turned into shirts.

Now Mr. King's a convert.

He says E-Wear T-shirts are ecologically friendly not only because they encourage recycling. They're also made without cotton, usually grown with pesticides.

The shirts use plastic soda bottles that are ground into chips, then melted and forced, like pasta, through a contraption with tiny holes to create long, thin fibers. The fibers are bundled into bales, spun into yarn and knitted into fabric at plants in Charlotte, Gastonia, Wadesboro and Albemarle, N.C.

Mr. King isn't the only entrepreneur trying with '80s business savvy to market a '70s product to a '90s consumer. Several other companies hope Americans will again don polyester. Global Green Inc., a year-old Atlanta firm, makes similar T-shirts using half recycled plastic soda bottles and half new polyester, says founder Linda Bavaro.

Using its trademarked fabric, Retrieva, Global Green also makes tote bags and fleecewear partly from recycled plastic bottles. It plans to expand its line.


And Patagonia Inc., the Montana-based outdoor clothing maker, began in August to sell a fleece sweater made from 80 percent recycled plastic bottles and 20 percent virgin polyester.

Charlotte retailers of outdoor gear predict a ready market for recycled polyester garb.

"I think environmentally conscious people will sacrifice comfort for personal ideals," says Joe Hedrick, owner of Jesse Brown's Outdoors on Sharon Road.

They'll also sacrifice a few extra dollars, Mr. Hedrick says, recalling the popularity of "green" cotton T-shirts -- made of unbleached cotton and decorated with biodegradable dyes. The shirts sold well at prices 20 percent to 30 percent higher than those of normal tees, he says.

Mr. King expects his printed shirts, not yet available in stores, to retail for $12 to $15 apiece. But it's unclear whether all-polyester T-shirts -- even those containing an average of 5.2 recycled soda bottles -- will prove more than a fad.

That will depend on the clothing's feel, says Luke Schmidt, president of the Charlotte-based National Association for Plastic-Container Recovery.


Mr. King, sporting an E-Wear sample with a blue-and-green globe logo, insists his shirts are as soft and breathable as cotton tees.

His fabric is fine to look at. But it still feels like . . . normal polyester. It dries almost instantly and lacks the softness and heft of cotton.

That's one reason Patagonia isn't likely to copy E-Wear's product, says spokesman Mike Harrelson.

Patagonia uses polyester to make long underwear as well as fleece. But not T-shirts, he says, because the synthetic is less effective than cotton in masking the body's natural odors.

"A T-shirt serves a more town application, whereas long underwear serves a more back-country need," Harrelson says. "And I don't mind if I stink in the back country, if I'm dry and I'm warm and I'm comfortable."

Still, Mr. Harrelson praised E-Wear's entrance into the market.


"We all stand to gain from this," he says, noting that only 27 percent of plastic soda bottles used in the United States are recycled.

Much work remains to be done at E-Wear, which Mr. King says began producing shirts in May. The company could soften its polyester. And its founder, hoping for a competitive edge, wants some help in hardening his environmentalist image.

"I'm just waiting," he says, "till I have dinner at the White House."