Meet the Dubai company turning discarded plastic bottles into T-shirts

It takes about 10 bottles measuring 500ml to produce a 120g T-shirt

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A Dubai company is helping to repurpose up to 60 million discarded plastic bottles a month by turning them into clothes.

Manufacturing fashion items with a sustainable twist, the team at DGrade said the more items they make, the less plastic waste that ends up in landfill.

From T-shirts to jackets and caps to face masks, the high-quality yarn made from recycled plastic bottles replaces traditional polyester yarn.

“To make recycled polyester uses 50 per cent less energy, 20 per cent less water and produces 55 per cent fewer carbon emissions compared to conventional polyester manufacturing,” said Emma Barber, director of DGrade.

PET1 plastic is infinitely recyclable but it gets such a bad rap worldwide because of human behaviour. The way we use it and discard it needs to change
Emma Barber, DGrade

“PET1 plastic is infinitely recyclable but it gets such a bad rap worldwide because of human behaviour. The way we use it and discard it needs to change.

“Plastic, if used and reused in the right way, can last a lifetime.”

The bottles, which are predominately collected from waste management companies in the Emirates, go through a three-step manufacturing process, turning them from plastic into fabric.

A 480-kilogram bale, consisting of up to 25,000 bottles, costs about $100.

The bottles are washed and shredded into flakes, melted at high pressure and extruded, before being spun into a polyester yarn. Some of the flakes are also melted into pellets and sold off to companies to make recycled bottles.

While the flakes are made at DGrade's factories in the UAE, the yarn is processed in India and Pakistan.

But with more investment, Ms Barber said they are hoping to carry out full manufacturing operations in the UAE by the end of the year.

“We are a business to business company so we make sustainable workwear and merchandise for companies,” she said.

“In 2019, we collected 78,000 bottles over a three-day period at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi after the Formula One Grand Prix.

“The following year we provided uniforms for the 2020 Grand Prix using the bottles we collected the year before.

“It takes about 10 500ml bottles to produce a 120g T-shirt and you can weave the fabric in different ways to create different textures.”

Sustainable fashion

Ms Barber, who has lived in the Middle East for more than a decade, has worked in the fashion industry for most of her career.

Concerned about how polluting the industry was, she ventured out to do stuff that was more sustainable.

“There’s a massive global demand for polyester and less than four per cent of it made around the world is from recycled materials,” she said.

“Other materials like cotton are land and water-intensive to grow, so it made sense to go down the polyester route.

“I joined the company in 2017 and it was my way of personally doing something to improve the planet.”

Recently, the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment raised landfill costs to $100 per tonne, from just $10 per lorry-load before.

With more being done to deter people from dumping waste in the country, Ms Barber said if they can take someone’s rubbish and make use of it, then they will.

But a huge part of their work is educating the public about better waste management.

“PET1 is the easiest plastic to recycle and the most recycled type of plastic,” she said.

“It is lightweight, which reduces costs and carbon emissions in transportation, compared to materials like glass.

“People's throwaway attitudes towards plastic is what causes the negative connotations associated with it. If they properly recycled it and repurposed it they would understand how good a material it actually is.”

Updated: January 24, 2022, 3:30 AM