Recycling has a mixed reputation. On the one hand, there’s a lot you can do at an individual level and a societal level to support recycling, from recycling plastics, metals, cardboard and paper products, and other materials through city-wide or other kinds of programs. On the other hand, there are many gripes with these programs, including:
- You don’t know where the materials go when you recycle them.
- You don’t know how any of these materials are recycled and if it’s a clean process.
- You don’t know where those recycled materials show up later.
- Many recycling programs have to discard materials because they aren’t properly sorted or handled.
- Certain recycling processes aren’t all that much greener than discarding the items.
- An entire lifetime of dedicated personal recycling is a drop in the bucket compared to a corporation’s waste in a given week.
These can be valid concerns. Some are addressed simply through curiosity and investigation; many recycling programs are quite transparent about what happens and may even offer tours of their facilities if you’re interested.
What’s still unfortunately rare are the companies that work solely using recycling and recycled materials. It’s a challenge because only certain materials can even be recycled effectively (some plastics, most metals, and many paper products), and others simply can’t, at least not in a way that is financially viable.
That said, there are some companies making it work. We’ve put together a list of companies whose products are 100% recycled materials, repurposed and reused, and given new life. Want to know who to shop with to support recycling and reuse? Here you go.
Ecoalf is the brainchild of Javier Goyeneche, who founded the company in 2009 with the goal of creating a sustainable and eco-friendly fashion brand. Over the following nearly 15 years, the brand has gone from a novel startup to one of the top 5% certified B Corps in the world. They’ve caught on rapidly in the last few years and are making great strides not just in using recycled materials for apparel but in developing new techniques for using recycled materials. For example, they’ve developed a method for turning used coffee grounds into pellets that are then used to give recycled fabrics a texture and finish that would normally only be accomplishable using chemical treatments that aren’t sustainable.
Ecoalf has a variety of different products on offer, and all of them are made with recycled materials. They used plastics from the ocean, lost fishing nets, recycled cotton and cashmere, cotton alternatives, recycled wool, recycled rubber, and more. You can read all about it here.
REPREVE is a supplier that takes used and discarded plastics like bottles and runs them through a process to recycle them and produce yarn. First, they source bottles, industrial waste, and other sources of the right kinds of plastic. They clean the plastics and then chop them into flakes. The flakes are then melted into pellets of resin, which is then re-melted and extruded into fibers. The fibers are processed and textured into something very similar to traditional yarn. They then sell this yarn to other companies making products for the consumer market, ranging from apparel to automotive upholstery and more.
One unique aspect of REPREVE is that the yarn they produce is traceable using a particular material identification process they call FiberPrint. Anyone can check the composition of their materials and verify that they’re fully validated and recycled.
While you, as a consumer, aren’t going to be buying REPREVE yarn directly, many other brands buy it, making them a producer of 100% recycled products.
Recover Brands is a producer of both ready-to-wear apparel like t-shirts and a wholesaler of those shirts, which can be printed and sold elsewhere, similar to how we produce our shirts. 100% of the materials they use are either fully sustainable organics or fully recycled. Most of their fabric, for example, is a 50/50 mix; 50% of it is recycled PET, and 50% of it is upcycled cotton and the upcycled cotton is where the end result fabric gets its color, so they don’t have any dyeing or other chemical processes involved in their manufacturing.
Another big benefit they tout is their hyperlocal production. They have two major facilities, one in the American Southeast in North Carolina and one in Central America in El Salvador. Both of these handle 100% of their production, from the initial gathering of recyclable materials to the production of recycled fabrics to the sewing of apparel to the printing, all within a 250-mile radius.
4: Green Toys
Green Toys is a manufacturer of baby and young child toys; you know, the big, bulbous, child-safe plastic toys that couldn’t hurt someone if they tried and are safe for children to do everything from play with to lick? While you might not think of plastic as an environmentally friendly material, Green Toys makes its products out of 100% recycled plastics.
The majority of their products are made from recycled milk jugs, which are high-density polyethylene, though some parts that need different material properties are made from other recycled plastics as well. The colors come from mineral-based, food-safe coloring agents. Even their packaging is made of recycled cardboard and plastic bits from water bottles.
Allbirds is a footwear company selling things like socks and shoes. Since they have a wide variety of products, they also have a wide variety of different levels of recycling and sustainability, but the overall goal of the company is net zero. They focus on everything from carbon neutrality to regenerative agriculture to using renewable materials and recycled materials. You can read a deep dive into their approach here.
While they aren’t necessarily 100% recycled, anything that’s not purely recycled is regenerative and replaced. Many of their products are 100% recycled, though, so they still fit the bill.
Rothy’s is a shoe and apparel company working with a combination of renewable and sustainable materials and, primarily, recycled plastics and ocean plastics. They harvest ocean plastic from within 30 miles of coastlines, along with recyclable bottles and other plastics from land. They’ve also created a world-leading manufacturing facility to produce their materials. Despite being located in China, this facility has received TRUE Platinum zero-waste certification. It’s all astonishingly net zero with a focus on circular production.
Seeing a trend? If you’re wondering why apparel companies are prime targets for using recycled materials, it’s mostly because of how plastic recycling works. One of the easiest – and in some cases, only – things you can do with recycled plastics (without those plastics just being shredded and ending up in the water as microplastics) is turn them into threads and yarns, which makes fabrics.
7: Karun World
Karun World is a company that started as an eyewear company using recycled materials. Since their founding, they’ve won awards for being the most sustainable eyewear brand. They’re a certified B Corp, and they’re a certified carbon-neutral company. They’re looking to expand beyond eyewear as well but haven’t quite reached that point yet.
Their process starts in Chile, where they pay locals to comb the beaches and landscapes for discarded refuse they can use, ranging from ropes and metals to plastics. They recycle the materials both themselves and using partners like Aquafil, which they then use along with a few added materials (sustainable, like wood) to make their sunglasses.
As an added bonus, they encourage anyone who has a pair of their sunglasses to send them back to be recycled when they reach the end of their life and give anyone who does 25% off their next order.
While sunglasses might not seem like the biggest target for sustainability, it’s refreshing to see a company that isn’t just making shirts, pants, or bags out of recycled fibers. So often, recycled products get tunnel vision, but any company that branches outside of the narrow range of common recycled products can help improve the overall saturation and normalcy of recycled materials.
While most of the companies on this list have been direct-to-consumer brands selling things like apparel, and only REPREVE thus far has been a supplier, that doesn’t mean they’re the only one. Terracycle is a leading global name in recycling and is a supplier of many recycled raw materials to other brands.
The most interesting thing is that Terracycle isn’t just doing the same recycling everyone else does, with shredded cardboard or plastic turned into yarn. Instead, they’re a brand making a wide range of innovative recycled materials. They’re at the forefront of recycling technology, and while the products they produce are a significant part of their offerings, they’re really more about developing processes.
Specifically, Terracycle strives to “recycle the unrecyclable.” They’ve developed dozens of different recycling processes that start from safe waste collection, through certification and validation, to both conceptual and technical recycling, and even address the practical realities and challenges of recycling those hard-to-recycle items. The more their processes achieve saturation around the world, the more different kinds of waste can be effectively recycled, and the better off we’ll all be.
Partially Recycled Products
We’ve done what we can to put together a list of companies whose offerings are 100% recycled. However, there are other lists online, and we’ve noticed something: many companies that start with 100% recycled material products eventually expand beyond that scope.
What this means is that the goal of using 100% recycled materials isn’t the endpoint but a goal to reach along the way to sustainability. Many brands that formerly used 100% recycled materials have been able to expand both the quality and comfort of their existing products and their catalog of possible products by adding in other materials.
This doesn’t mean they’re using partially recycled goods and partially virgin goods that reintroduce the problem they were trying to solve, though. Quite the opposite, in fact. Many of these companies have been sourcing or even developing materials made from sustainable sources.
- Merino wool, which comes from sheep and is an eminently renewable resource. Companies we found that use this wool tend to work exclusively with farms that focus on strict adherence to animal care and ethical farming requirements, similar to Fair Trade.
- Wood. Several different companies have started using wood of various sorts, either as wooden parts or to make paper or other fiber products. Most of them either do a 1:1 replacement of planting a tree for every tree they use or even plant more than they use.
- Alternative fabrics. There are some novel forms of fabric that are slowly gaining momentum as replacements for water-hungry cotton. A few companies we found use these alternatives as a more sustainable way of making a virgin material and getting the material properties of cotton without relying on treating plastic fibers.
Many companies also have started to look beyond just the materials. After all, if it takes an immense amount of energy and water to recycle a material, is the end result any better? Several companies, including a few on this list, have started to focus not just on the products but on the processes and operations that create them. Packaging, manufacturing, shipping, and even the offices and factories they work in are optimized for carbon-neutral operations.
In other words, looking for companies that offer 100% recycled products is a good and laudable goal, but if you can’t find what you’re looking for, that doesn’t mean you’re stuck. There are many companies working with alternative materials that, while not recycled, are perfectly sustainable and better for the environment.
It’s all about finding our role in the bigger picture. Many companies use circularity as the goal; everything that they harvest from nature is put back into nature or restored, and anything not natural is removed and given new life. There’s a lot to it – the global ecosystem and our impact on it is vastly complex – so we all just do the best we can. Together, we can make a difference!
Daniel Cardozo, CEO of Ethix Merch, is a passionate advocate for ethical promotional products. With a mission to transform global supply chains, he serves on the Labor 411 Foundation and Advertising Specialty Institute’s Promo for the Planet Advisory Board. Daniel is dedicated to empowering socially and environmentally-conscious consumers.