Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
For decades now, swimsuits have been made with Spandex – but it is difficult to recycle. British label Rixo’s swimwear collection is made from Q-Nova, a sustainable nylon fibre obtained from regenerated raw materials.

Bikinis can’t be recycled, and who’d buy a used one? Swimsuits made from old fishing nets and carpets are increasingly an option

  • Swimsuit sales are booming but two-thirds are made from polyester or spandex, which can’t be recycled. With no resale market, many swimsuits end up in landfills
  • Boutique and fashion swimwear brands increasingly use fibres made from spandex scraps or recycled plastic bottles, fishing nets and industrial carpets

In the first half of 2021, before the spectre of the Delta coronavirus variant arose, consumers were in a liberated mood. Along with airline tickets and high heels, swimsuits became must-haves for shoppers eager to escape quarantine.

Globally, consumers spent US$2.7 billion on swimwear in the first half of 2021 – a 19 per cent jump from the same period in 2019, according to industry analysts at market research company NPD Group.

For decades now, most swimsuits have been made with spandex, which was invented by scientists at chemical company DuPont 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. As of 2017, polyester and spandex made up about 65 per cent of the fabrics used in the swimwear market, according to Allied Market Research.

US brand Marah Hoffman makes swimsuits using Econyl, a kind of recycled nylon.
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 waste management company Recycle Track Systems. 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.

Hong Kong model launches company to make eco-chic bikini line

Some are trying. The Lycra Company’s EcoMade line includes fibres drawn from pre-consumer spandex scraps as well as blends of recycled polyethylene terephthalate, a common plastic. Speedo sells souped-up performance suits in chlorine-resistant spandex and Lycra’s Xtra Life fibre, which promises to last longer than conventional fibres, thereby creating less waste.

Perhaps the most popular among boutique and fashion-oriented swimwear lines is Econyl, made by the decades-old German engineering company Aquafil, which recovers fishing nets from oceans and industrial carpets from landfills to spin into yarn.

“Swimwear is our biggest challenge,” says Dana Davis, head of sustainability at the eco-conscious brand Mara Hoffman. The company designs its suits with Econyl and Repreve, a performance fibre made from recycled materials such as plastic bottles, and will soon work with another recycled nylon called Q-Nova.

British label Rixo’s swimwear collection is made from Q-Nova.
“We’re not taking virgin fossil fuels,” Davis says, “but let’s be honest, this isn’t the be-all and end-all. There’s no way to take a swimsuit and recycle it into another swimsuit.” Plus, Davis points out, these recycled plastic suits release microplastics into the water supply just like brand new spandex.

The brands using Econyl and Repreve hope those products’ parent companies figure out how the materials can be further reused, and soon.

“We’re emailing them quite often to find out when we can recycle these materials,” says Abigail Lorick, creative director at sustainable swimwear line Ansea. “Our big goal for 2021 is to figure out how we can start taking back end-of-life swimwear.”

Want more content like this? Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Instagram.