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Sartorially Correct '90s Camper or Hiker Wears Soda Bottles

CALL it winter waste wear.

Garmentmakers are turning plastic soft-drink bottles into everything from long johns to mittens. During the past year, more than 70 retailers, including such names as Patagonia, Lands' End, and L.L. Bean, have started selling clothing made of recycled polyester fibers.

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``The technology has evolved to the point where the quality, softness, and price are the same as virgin polyester,'' says Mike Harrelson at Patagonia, an outerwear company based in Bozeman, Mont. ``All things being equal, why not take a bottle used one time and create garments that see hundreds of uses?''

In its latest catalog, Patagonia highlights the environmental benefits of converting most of its ``Synchilla'' fleece outerwear line to recycled plastic. The company estimates that it will save about 500,000 pounds of oil and natural gas this year. Although recycled fiber currently costs slightly more to make, Harrelson says Patagonia's recycled fleece garments are priced the same as virgin polyester wear.

One might assume that nature lover's would eschew polyester for natural fibers. But ``runners, campers, bikers, and hikers love it,'' says Jordan Douglas, vice president of sales at Wicker Sportswear Inc., in Commack, N.Y., which manufactures polyester thermal underwear made with recycled plastic. ``Polyester keeps you warm while pulling moisture away from the skin,'' Mr. Douglas explains.

But until recently, polyester made from recycled plastic was only used to make carpets and filling for items such as pillows. Debris from the bottles made production of fine fibers difficult.

In 1993, Wellman Inc., the nation's third-largest manufacturer of polyester fiber, started making a higher-quality recycled polyester. The results were attained by doing some technical tinkering and taking more care in the preparation of raw materials.

``We had to come up with a good class of waste, really clean, really pure,'' says Jill Rea, a spokeswoman for the Shrewsbury, N.J. -based Wellman. The company is the largest United States supplier of recycled plastic fiber, known as Ecospun.

Sales are picking up, but Ecospun is still less than 15 million pounds out of the 1 billion pounds of total polyester (virgin and recycled) produced by Wellman last year.

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The Ecospun fiber is made from PET or polyethylene terephthalate soda bottles. Most of the raw material comes from states with bottle return laws. The increase in curbside pickup of recyclable materials could be another source of inexpensive raw material, lowering Wellman production costs. But Ms. Rea notes that the curbside material tends to be a ``dirtier'' plastic waste stream, requiring labor-intensive sorting and scrubbing.

Initially, both manufacturers and retailers were concerned that plastic soda bottle garments might not sell well. ``A lot of people were reluctant to switch from virgin to recycled polyester. They weren't sure about public acceptance. And they wanted to see it, touch it,'' Douglas says.

Most consumers won't find a difference between the virgin and recycled polyester. Wickers Sportswear reports increasing sales, from customers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and J.C. Penny Company. Douglas says there is a slight difference in the ``hand'' or the feel of recycled fiber. Ecospun continues to refine the product, with a finer yarn expected in coming months.

The switch to recycled polyester hasn't produced any ``Frisbee or Hula-Hoop-type increase in sales,'' says Patagonia's Harrelson. But, he notes, sales are strong enough to keep 8 million plastic bottles from ending up in a landfill this year.

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