Dubai is making T-shirts out of plastic Video Credit: Reported by: Evangeline Elsa and Shreya Bhatia

Plastic can actually be good

I love plastic. Don’t hate me for that. And here’s my second confession: I’ve just got myself a “quick dri” t-shirt that’s made of 10 recycled PET (plastic) bottles, a cap for my son made from six recycled bottles and a cloth bag that was made out of anything between 10 to 40 recycled plastic water bottles. Did I hear you say plastic is bad for our oceans and deserts? That we should stop using it completely? Contrary to popular belief, plastic has a low carbon foot print, it is safe and hygienic and it is meant to be recycled, and not dumped. And that’s why we need to stop trashing it around and instead, recycle and reuse it in the form of garments and accessories, just like I did.

A clothing manufacturer in Dubai has been working with its supply chains in China and India to use fabric made of shredded plastic is now about to kick off this process in its 3,500-square-metre recycling plant in Dubai South this year.

DGrade will be Middle East’s first bottle-to-yarn manufacturing company to shred plastic bottles and re-use them to either make new bottles or spin them into yarn to make apparel.

So how exactly does this work?

Plastic bottles are collected, then washed and shredded into flakes. The plastic flakes are then heated and melted to produce fibres. The fibre is spun into the yarn, which is finally woven or knitted into fabric to make clothing and accessories. This in turn creates a sustainable system for recycling waste (plastic in this case) back into everyday products that we can use.

DGrade is currently getting together the large quantity of plastic bottles required to manufacture clothes and accessories through its Simply Bottles recycling initiative and is excited at the prospect of producing its trademark Greenspun fewer carbon emissions and zero per cent oil, a finite resource.

Kris Barber, the founder and CEO of DGrade, says that once they turn on the machinery to start shredding the bottles, the company will be able to recycle 720 million bottles per year (nearly a fifth of plastic bottles used annually in the UAE), and therefore divert a significant amount of waste that would otherwise enter the waters around the Middle East.

Kris Barber
Kris Barber is the CEO and founder of DGrade Image Credit: Supplied

The company is now an official Expo 2020 Dubai licensee and is the first bottle-to-yarn manufacturing company to make clothes out of plastic. They will be creating sustainable Expo-branded clothing to raise awareness of this innovative method of sustainable fashion in the country. “We hope to inspire visitors to act to preserve the planet through recycling methods aligned with Expo 2020’s sustainability subtheme,” says a proud Barber.

DGrade’s products will showcase sustainability solutions, extending benefits to the wider economy. It will be one of the many ways through which Expo 2020 will highlight how sustainable practices can help create a better future.

Early days

Barber arrived in Dubai nine years back from the UK. He had a background in textile manufacturing and had by then already established DGrade as a fashion label in his home country. “I had no experience in waste management, honestly,” he says. It was only by chance in 2009 when we were looking at the possibility of replacing plastic carry bags in the UK supermarkets in favour of more permanent solutions, that we started ‘Bags for Life’. They were permanent shopping bags made of fabric which in turn came from recycled bottles. We realized that the PET plastic in the bottles was actually polyester, which was already being created in the conventional way using oil. So if we could process it and spin it back into yarn, we could produce polyester without oil. We trademarked the yarn we made from recycled plastic as Greenspun and soon after produced the first Polar fleece jackets for Marks and Spencer made entirely from recycled plastic bottles.”

All the plastic that was collected by DGrade Image Credit: Supplied

At that point Barber outsourced all manufacturing through “a fragmented supply chain in the Far East and in Asia that procured the raw material locally and then turned it into fabric. We just designed and developed the products in the UK,” he said.

It was to shorten the distance between the supply chain and customer that Barber looked at other strategic points in the world. “We looked at regions that had high levels of plastic consumption around the world, and we looked at countries that had the infrastructure in place in order to support this type of industry. Dubai’s strategic location between the UK and China was something we wanted to consider. So we looked at the feasibility of using local waste to create a local product that could then be distributed throughout the region. At this stage we took a conscious decision to finally get into the manufacturing side rather than the contracting side of things,” explains Barber.

Why ban when you can recycle

“Plastic is not the problem,” says Barber. “People are.” It is human behavior that people consume things and then throw them away, he explains. “And it’s not just plastic, you have people throwing away clothes, washing machines and so many other things. I am trying to change that mindset. People need to recycle plastic rather than throw it away or even ban it. When you shred plastic into food grade particles it can be recycled either into a bottle or up-streamed into something more valuable, like garments.” The flaked bottles turn into fibre, which is then spun into yarn and then made into t-shirts, caps and bags. While some of the products of DGrade are made completely out of recycled plastic, like my “quick dri” t-shirt, there also products where the plastic is blended with cotton.

The Simply Bottles initiative

DGrade’s Simply Bottles initiative came out of Barber’s concern that they needed a considerable amount of feedstock to start off the manufacturing process in Dubai. “We need about 1,000 tons a month as our feedstock. There are usually 50,000 bottles in a ton, so if you do the math, it’s quite a huge number. Simple Bottles was born out of that concern. It’s a campaign we offer to schools that aims to collect plastic bottles while teaching children about recycling and show them something tangible at the end which is far more valuable than plastic. When kids see that we are able to create t-shirts, polo shirts, trousers, shorts, jackets, bathrobes, towels and caps using fabric made from plastic, they are hugely encouraged,” said Barber.

The Simply Bottles Initiative also engages children in beach and desert cleanup campaigns. “The UAE uses 2.75 billion water bottles a year but less than 6 per cent are recycled. Around 50 per cent of camels die in the UAE from ingesting plastic. This is a serious issue with desert wildlife. It’s also surprising to see that the threat to the ocean is not just from plastic bottles, but also from fishing ropes and nets.”

DGrade also gets their feedstock from collections at sports, community and entertainment events (the Pope’s visit to Abu Dhabi, for example, gave them access to almost a million used plastic bottles at the site), as well as from waste management companies. “Sadly we don’t have any incentive for waste management companies in the UAE to recycle. There is no landfill tax here as well, like in other countries. But events like Expo 2020 Dubai is bringing about that change and starting the dialogue about recycling and sustainability.”

DGrade at Dubai Expo 2020

As part of the plan for Expo 2020 licensees, DGrade will be able to retail their unique Expo-branded products across key retail points at the Expo and across the UAE. “This gives us a huge opportunity to showcase our products and educate millions of people about the benefits of our process and the dangers of not recycling,” said Barber. Currently his products are available online and are priced roughly 10 per cent higher than conventional polyester garments.

“Imagine talking to people about wearing plastic. How cool would that be? Expo will be able to facilitate that sort of an education and we are proud to be part of it.”