Going Green: Recycling Bottles into Soccer Shirts

Listen up, sports fans: Nike, Coke and Reebok are turning recycled plastic into athletic clothing

  • Giuseppe Bellini / Getty Images / Nike

    Slovenia is one of the Nike-sponsored teams whose uniforms are 100% recycled plastic.

    I don't know how recycling works. Or how fabric gets made. But when I found out that nine World Cup teams are wearing uniforms made out of old plastic bottles, I was agog. I pictured people sewing thin strips of bottles into plastic chain mail, partly because my wife's mom made a bag that way and partly because I'm an idiot.

    The Nike outfits worn by the U.S. team as well as Brazil's are made solely out of bottles — more specifically, bottles from landfills in Japan and Taiwan. I tried on a Brazil jersey, which Nike retails for $70. The company touts it as being lighter, sturdier, breathier and all those other Nike-ier things than any soccer jersey ever, but I was just impressed that it was made out of plastic.

    The jersey was soft, the softest thing I'd ever touched made from bottles. Until I got my hands on Coca-Cola's Drink2Wear T-shirts. Though the material Coke uses is only about half plastic bottle (the rest is cotton), it's crazy soft. Until a few years ago, I assumed there was no difference in the way T-shirts felt. Then I felt one of my wife's: thin, slightly stretchy and downy. Coke's feel like that. "When we started working on this 10 years ago, it was very rough and itchy," says Kate Dwyer, Coke's group director of worldwide licensing. Now even the Drink2Wear baseball cap is soft and squishy.

    Coke sells its plasti-shirts in different stores at different price points, from $7 at Walmart to $20 at L.A. boutique Fred Segal. The shirts are emblazoned with such phrases as "Coke says rock your rubbish" and "Make your plastic fantastic," and each comes with a little tag that notes how many 20-oz. (600 ml) bottles are in it (about five in a men's medium). Coke has sold more than $15 million worth of these products, which launched in 2007 and have reused some 5 million bottles.

    Coke and Nike are building on technology that smaller firms have used for decades. Patagonia has been making clothing out of recycled plastic since 1993. Transforming bottles into fabric, while it sounds like alchemy, is actually called downcycling: turning something difficult to make (in this case, impermeable hard plastic) into something easy to make (breathable fabric).

    From a resource-management perspective, however, it takes less energy to recycle stuff into the same kind of stuff. That's why Patagonia has been moving away from bottles. Its Synchilla fleece jacket has gone from being made from 100% recycled soda bottles to just 3%. The rest is now other recycled polyesters. Still, Darby Hoover, a recycling expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, is psyched that companies are making other stuff out of bottles. Especially if that stuff is being used in front of millions of people at the World Cup. "It's a really great way to get a green message out," she says.

    Making a green conversation happen organically at a game is a pretty good trick. Later this year, Reebok will start collecting bottles from NFL and NHL games and turning them into shirts to sell to fans in those same arenas. It encourages people to buy both merchandise and beverages. Someone must be working on a way to turn beer cups into foam fingers.