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Profit-wise, swimwear firms are swimming. Eco-wise, they’re ...


Profit-wise, swimwear firms are swimming. Eco-wise, they’re drowning

Up to mid-year, consumers spent 19% more than they did last year, adding to an already monstrous green challenge

Margaret Rhodes

In the first half of the year, before the spectre of the Delta variant arose, consumers were in a liberated mood. With airline tickets and high heels, swimsuits became must-haves for shoppers eager to escape quarantine. Globally, consumers spent $2.7bn (about R40bn) on swimwear in the first half of 2021, a 19% jump from the same period in 2019.

For decades, most swimsuits have been made with Spandex, which was invented by materials scientists at DuPont in the US in 1959 as a lighter, more breathable alternative to rubber. The petroleum-based material quickly became standard in the apparel industry and in 1972 Speedo became the first company to sell Spandex swimwear. Up to 2017, polyester and Spandex made up about 65% of the fabrics used in the swimwear market.

As new bikinis, one-pieces and briefs rotate into people’s wardrobes, the worn-out ones typically wind up in landfills. “Spandex is a very difficult material to recycle,” says Shannon Bergstrom, sustainability brand manager at Recycle Track Systems in the US. The synthetic fibres are too short for mechanical processes to sort and no effective chemical methods exist to recover the used material. Consumers can always donate or resell used suits, but there’s no guarantee anyone will buy them, even if they’re new with tags. “I’m hopeful that companies will pick up the bill to create solutions,” Bergstrom adds...

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