March 13, 2013 at 9:44 AM ET
They don’t look like they’re made from trash – and that’s the whole idea behind Levi’s new Waste-Less jeans.
The company says at least 20 percent of the material that goes into making this denim comes from recycled plastic bottles and food trays. That means about eight 12- to 20-ounce bottles are reborn in each pair.
“It’s good for people and better for the planet,” said Jonathan Kirby, vice president of men’s design at Levis Strauss.
The company plans to turn about 3.5 million recycled bottles and other plastic waste into soft, high-quality denim for its Spring 2013 Waste-Less collection. And just to make sure you don’t miss that fact, Levi’s puts a tag on each pair: “These jeans are made of garbage.”
“We decided to take something that was trash and turn it onto something that was valuable and viable,” Kirby told me. “The end goal is to get people to think a little bit differently about what they do with their waste. We want them to realize that a piece of trash can actually become something else that’s relevant to them.”
Right now, this sustainable denim is being made into jeans for both men and women, as well as the classic Trucker jacket for men. The jeans start at around $68, which Kirby calls “a very fair price for a product of this quality and value.”
How do they do it?
The recycled plastic – brown beer bottles (yes, they’re plastic), green soda bottles, clear water bottles and black food trays – is collected from communities across the country and shipped to a manufacturing plant where it is broken down into tiny pellets and spun into polyester fibers. That polyester yarn is then woven with cotton into denim.
The Waste-Less jeans are thin and lightweight, darker than some other denim. The inside of the jeans also looks different. They’re not the typical blue and white. These are more brown and blue.
“The brown bottles and the food trays give the fabric that unique shade and color,” Kirby explained. “You can actually see the recycled material in the garments themselves.”
Is this really good for the earth?
The recycling of plastic bottles has increased dramatically during the last few years. The International Bottled Water Association recently reported that 39 percent of the plastic water bottles in the United States were recycled in 2011. That’s up from 32 percent the year before.
Of course, something has to be done with all of this waste plastic before recycling truly takes place. It must be made into new products, such as plastic lumber, carpets, new containers or clothing. Environmentalists call this “closing the loop.”
“It’s a great way to make sure there’s an end market for recovered materials,” said Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Counsel. “When consumers put plastic bottles into the recycling bins, this helps ensure that there’s a market for them to actually get turned into useful products.”
Hoover points out that this does not decrease the plastic that’s being used to make new plastic bottles – environmentalists would like to see fewer of them used – but it does help keep some plastic waste out of landfills.
“Using recycled content helps decrease environmental impacts across the board as compared with using virgin materials for manufacture,” Hoover told me.
So what does denim made with trash look at feel like?
Levi’s sent me a pair to wear for a few days.
I asked some friends and colleagues to feel the material. Most described it as “smooth”or “soft.” They were completely surprised when I told them there was recycled plastic in the denim and they all wanted to know more.
One person asked if the plastic in the jeans would melt if ironed or thrown in the dryer. The company assured me they will not.
A long-term commitment to the environment
This is not the first environmental initiative for Levi’s. The company’s Water-Less manufacturing technique introduced in 2011 reduces the water used in the finishing process of some products by as much as 96 percent. The company says the Water
“We don’t just want to reduce our impact on the environment, we want to leave it better than we found it,” said James Curleigh, global president of Levi’s brand in a statement.
Clearly, Levi Strauss believes it can be a leader in eco-fashion. Vice president Jonathan Kirby told me he’s looking into a number of different sustainable clothing options for next year.
“It’s the beginning of something that will hopefully become a bigger initiative for us,” he said.