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RPET T-Shirts Explained

Apr 13, 2018

We have an entire page dedicated to eco-friendly shirts, but some people are interested in learning more so we dove a little deeper into RPET t-shirts and fabrics for all the über-eco-conscious out there.

RPET T-Shirts & Fabric: Technical Mumbo Jumbo

RPET stands for Recycled Polyethylene Terephthalate. Really, that just means it’s recycled plastic. Whether it comes from plastic bottles or strands of extruded polyester that have broken during the manufacturing process, many suppliers recyclethis “waste” to create RPET fabrics. Those fabrics are then sewn into RPET t-shirts.


How is RPET Fabric Made?

The process of making RPET fabric is comprised of quite a few steps, but it’s not too complicated. We’re going to get into the nitty gritty a bit, but if videos are more your speed, check out these links. This video shows the recycling process and this video shows how those bottles are turned into fabric.


RPET T-shirts - Infographic

RPET T-shirts - Bottle Photo

Photo Credit: Leisure Activist Group


The process works like so:

1. You recycle your plastic bottles.
2. Those bottles are collected, sorted & baled.
3. The bales are chopped into small pieces, called “flake”.
4. Those pieces are then cleaned and the labels are removed.
5. The flake is then turned into more formed, smaller pieces called “chip”.
6. The chip is melted and extruded into extremely thin filaments. Those filaments are bundled into a yarn, which is then buffeted by air, entangling the filaments.
7. The yarn is stretched over heated rubber rollers to change its molecular structure from being like dental floss to something closer to wool. From there, it is spooled together and ready to be assembled into fabric. Whether that is 100% RPET, a 50/50 blend with organic cotton, or yet other blends with other fabrics depends on what the manufacturer has in mind.


Why it’s Important

You might be thinking, What’s this got to do with me? Well, a lot, honestly. “Virgin” polyester requires crude oil for production, sucking up more of our earth’s natural resources. In contrast, RPET just requires plastic bottles, which are already in abundance. Plastic bottles can actually be recycled into RPET fabrics and then recycled back into more fabrics or more plastic bottles. Recycling plastic bottles seems like a no-brainer, right?

Unfortunately, out of the 50 billion+ plastic bottles used in the United States annually, only about 23% are recycled. That means 38 billion plastic bottles end up in landfills, or worse.

Depending on the manufacturer, it takes anywhere from 5 to 50 plastic bottles to create enough fabric to produce a garment. That’s a minimum of 760 million garments that could have been produced if those bottles were recycled. Regardless of your stance on the environment, the facts are there. Recycling comes down to you & me. It’s a very simple choice and it makes an enormous impact on the environment we very often take for granted.


RPET T-shirts - Bottles


Diatribe over. Let’s talk RPET in regards to this industry.

So, how do RPET fabrics come into play with the garment decoration world? We’ll tell you!

Many companies, including but not limited to Champion, Alternative Apparel, and Liberty Bags produce RPET t-shirts that contain up to 10% RPET fabrics, which is better than most garment manufacturers.

Even better than that, companies such as US Blanks and Royal Apparel have RPET t-shirts that are comprised of 50% RPET fabrics. Also, they often combine the use of RPET fabrics with organic or upcycled cotton, offering more RPET t-shirt options while remaining sustainable. In addition to that, US Blanks manufactures all of their garments in the United States and most of Royal Apparel’s line is manufactured in the states as well.

As far as RPET fabric manufacturers go, Unifi takes recycling one step further, by doing it in the states. Once recycled, they also manufacture their brands, such as Repreve, Sorbtek, A.M.Y., among others, in the United States. In particular, Repreve provides RPET and recycled nylon fabrics to a multitude of large retail companies such as Ford, Volcom, New Era, Haggar, Northface, and Polartec.


RPET T-shirts - Ink Knife


Printing Options

Beyond the garments themselves, the ink you choose plays a major role in producing an eco-friendly product as well. Say you choose RPET t-shirts for your order. Did you consider the impact the ink might have on the environment? If you choose to print plastisol on an RPET garment, the ink somewhat offsets the good you’re doing by choosing RPET garments.

Plastisol inks are petroleum-based and therefore not great for our planet. However, water-based inks have a solvent base of water. They are therefore much better for the environment, because they are PVC free. Unlike most shops who print water-based inks, we don’t charge additional fees for doing so. One day, we hope to be an entirely water-based shop. Join us on this journey and get a quote for RPET t-shirts with water-based inks today!