A view of the “Gardening the Trash” art exhibition at Glasgow Caledonian University's New York campus. Photo by: Miniwiz

They were the sort of tapestries one might expect to see in a premier art museum: pieces bursting with vibrant color, evident quality and a level of extraordinary detail that commanded viewers to cautiously stand back.

But the works on display recently in downtown New York City were were not as delicate as they looked. Their source, after all, was not fine silk or high-quality cotton, but instead converted plastic bottles people once tossed in the trash.

It isn’t clear how much the $2.5 trillion global fashion industry actually contributes to rising greenhouse gas emissions. But the fashion industry has a clear problem with pollution and the New York exhibition represents an effort to try and change that.

An Italian textile company and a Taiwanese “upcycling” firm, Miniwiz, are taking a gamble at how far sustainably-minded fashionistas might be willing to see their trash converted into new forms of fashion. Manufacturing eyeglasses, tapestries or clothing from one recycled good is actually cheaper than sourcing multiple materials, said Johann Boedecker, a partner and chief executive officer of Miniwiz.

“It’s just one material. We take it and recycle it very simply,” he said. “It’s intrinsically easier to turn something into a purer version of itself.”

In their traveling art exhibition, “Gardening the Trash,” viewers were invited to take hot irons to mold or curl the tendrils of the tapestries — once tall towers of plastic bottles, taken from Taiwan. Air-light, blue glasses frames came from cigarette butts, said Boedecker, explaining their joke that they are “putting the butts back in your face.”

While many consumers are quick to pick up a recycled shopping bag, fine clothing made from recycled plastics are still a relatively rare sight, mostly limited to the shelves of eco-friendly brands and a few major outlets such as Patagonia, Adidas and Nike.

Most of fashion’s assumed pollution problem comes from its supply chain and its materials. It can take more than 20,000 liters of water to produce a single kilo of cotton. And even small amounts of water used at home to wash one acrylic item of clothing can release more than 700,000 plastic particles into the environment, according to a study released last year at the University of California Santa Barbara.

Some designers, such as Eileen Fisher, have taken pledges to reduce water usage and use more organic cotton — a small fraction of the cotton used today — to make its supply chain sustainable by 2020.

Recycling regular household and industry goods could offer another sustainable model for a broader range of fashion companies, says Cara Smyth, the director of the Fair Fashion Center at Glasgow Caledonian University, in New York.

“We used to look at waste as a problem, but it actually is an opportunity, and it takes all the knowledge of the community. Trash is now the new medium to do things differently from how they have been done because we have cotton, but we have not had this idea of what is the trash that is in your garden, that we could turn into something different,” said Smyth, who helped facilitate the art exhibition.

Miniwiz, a 12-year-old company that has constructed projects as large as buildings made out of soda cans, recently developed a transportable, 40-foot shipping container, the “Trashpresso,” which can convert post-consumer waste into clean, usable materials. The final result is indistinguishable from anything else made from more traditional products.

This could help the idea of recycled goods catch on within the industry, as many fashion companies presently don’t have the knowledge, connections or infrastructure to sustainably produce their goods.

“Fashion cares a lot, but there is not necessarily the skill set in the fashion companies needed to address the things we need to address. Now the people making clothes need to understand renewable energy, recycling and circular economies and they do not … have the skillset in the companies to do that, so there is a call on them to do that,” Smyth said.

There’s also a lingering misconception that recycled waste needs to be dirty. For Lorenzo Bonotto, owner of Bonotto Company, one of the top fabric suppliers in Italy, this exhibition’s bright, immersive pieces offered a chance to move away from those ideas.

“We want to shape and create the dimensional effect, to demonstrate trash is a material with a lot of possibilities,” he said. “This window is opening slowly, slowly, but it is a process.”

Our mission is to do more good for more people. If you think the right information can make a difference, we invite you to join us by making a small investment in Professional Membership.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.