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'90s polyester ecologically correct

For years, nature lovers, enamored of the natural clothing made of fibers shorn from sheep or plucked from cotton plants, have disdained polyester for its unnatural pedigree as a plastic derived from that most environmentally reviled of substances: petroleum.

But now, nature-loving consumers have become the target market for new lines of polyester apparel, accessories and sporting goods made from that most civic-minded of materials: recycled plastic soda bottles.

Polyester, though artificial and plastic as ever, has gone unabashedly green.

This winter, companies like Patagonia, Eastern Mountain Sports and Wickers Sportswear have been selling thermal underwear, pullovers, vests, jackets, blankets and shoes made with recycled polyester, at prices comparable to items made from virgin polyester.

And L. L. Bean, Nike Inc., Reebok International Inc., Jansport and the Timberland Co. plan to add similar products to their lines.

The 25-bottle pullover sweater and 10-bottle set of thermal underwear are among the garments meant to raise the market share for the United States polyester industry, which in 1993 won about $2.2-billion of the nation's approximately $74-billion in total fabric sales. They may also help expand the market for this particular kind of recycled plastic.

"This could be really big for the recycling industry, in which economics is now the key to success," said David Roylance, professor of material science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Recycling needs some useful inventions like this that are high quality _ but not high cost _ to create consumer demand, investor interest and get legislators to pass more recyling laws."

Soft, resilient, water repellent and offering thermal protection, polyester is popular with hikers, skiers, runners and other sports enthusiasts _ who tend to be the same people most willing to seek out products made from recycled materials.

By next fall, Eastern Mountain Sports, a 49-store chain based in Peterborough, N.H., plans to expand its recycled polyester line to about a dozen items from the three introduced last fall, company president William Ferry said.

When both are available, items made from recycled polyester have been outselling versions made from virgin polyester, Ferry said. "This has a very bright future with us," he said.

It was in the late 1970s that fibermakers began using the recycled plastic used in soda bottles _ polyethelene teraphthalate, or PET _ and industrial scrap to make coarse fiber-fill stuffings for furniture and jackets. But it has only been in the last year or so that a series of engineering developments has made it possible to fashion polyester fabrics for clothing from plastic soda bottles that might otherwise clog landfills or pile up in recycling centers.

Part of the engineering improvement lies in the process for cleaning, melting down and filtering recycled bottle plastic to new levels of purity. There are also better machines and manufacturing systems for extruding molten liquid into fiber that is fine enough for clothing and cuddly toys, yet is strong enough for backpacks and the sturdy, waterproof fabrics used in the upper portions of hiking boots.

Manufacturers of fibers, fabrics, garments and accessories say recycled polyester products will reach the retail level in full force by the fall of 1995.

"Within the next five years, we expect 50 to 80 percent of our product line to shift to recycled," said Jeffrey Bowman, merchandising manager for Malden Mills in Lawrence, Mass. which had about $35-million in fabric sales in 1993.

Of course, whether recycled or "virgin," polyester still carries a certain stigma.

When it was introduced in the 1950s, and through the 1960s, polyester gained popularity for use in permanent-press clothing and bed sheets. Then came the 1970s and the men's double-knit leisure suit _ slacks with a tunic top. Polyester's image crumpled.

"We called the look The Full Cleveland," said Mark Sofman, a recycling executive for Hoechst Celanese. "It was a white belt, white shoes, a floral shirt with pointy collar and a leisure suit of neon green or some other color not found in nature."

But the seeds of polyester's comeback were already being planted. In the late 1970s, the first state bottle-deposit laws were adopted, leading to community recycling programs and the reclamation of PET for use in coarse-fiber products.

Currently, about 40 percent of the 9.5-billion PET bottles sold are being recycled, according to Scientific Certification Systems, an independent laboratory in Oakland, Calif., that verifies environmental product claims.

Stanley P. Rhodes, chief executive of SCS said the multimillion-dollar investments by fiber and fabricmakers to produce recycled polyester products made sense from both a business and environmental standpoint.

"This is real industrial change," he said, "that can spring loose a whole new market and add a key piece to the recycling puzzle _ what to do with the things we collect."

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