Kochi is one of Kerala’s largest sources for used plastic bottles that are transformed into polyster fibre for fabric.

“8 Bottles. 1 Jean. Waste Less” proclaimed a televised Levi’s advertisement last year. A single used PET bottle hung by a rope in the opening shot. In seconds, it travelled through dustbins, garbage dumps, and a recycling unit, met a crusher, was broken into flakes and melted into polyester fibre. A pair of jeans emerges at the close of the advertisement. Was this merely clever marketing, or could clothes really be made of waste? A growing global market of discarded PET bottles reveals that Levi’s is just one among numerous clothing retailers slowly turning to trash for raw material. And in this global chain of recycling, Kochi plays a small role.

At the deserted end of Jew Street in Mattancherry, far away from the tourist hub, stands an unassuming godown-like building called ‘Shadhiya Bottles’. Within it mountains of plastic bottles pile up, ready to be recycled for textile industries elsewhere in the country. In business parlance, this set-up is called a ‘bailing unit’ and performs the first step in converting post-consumption bottles into usable material. Owner M.S. Shameer says, “I have five tempo vans that go across Kochi, and to Kottayam, collecting used bottles from shops every day. The average daily collection varies between one and two tonnes.” The price paid to shopkeepers fluctuates by the season, from Rs. 20 upwards for a kilo of empty bottles. Another common source for used PET is migrants who scavenge waste dumps for extra income. They are paid Rs. 15 per kilo, says Shameer, as what they find is often of assorted branding unlike shops who supply a uniform variety.

From mineral water bottles, to cool drink and aerated beverage bottles, and most commonly, alcohol bottles, they arrive in various shapes, sizes and colours to be sorted by a team of eight people. Clear bottles are separated from blue and green ones, while other colours are piled together since each colour is processed for a different colour of fibre. Two women remove metal rims and caps, and hundreds of bottles are then fed into a hydraulic bailing machine that, over an hour, crushes them into cubical bales weighing 140 kilos each. “A tonne of uncrushed bottles would take an entire lorry to transport, but one tonne makes eight bales that can fit in a regular lorry,” says Shameer.

In Kerala, the largest collection of used bottles comes from Ernakulam district, says Markham Gomes, a trader who is the middleman transporting bales from local units to textile industries in Gujarat, Delhi and Tamil Nadu, the three States where recycled polyester fibre is primarily manufactured. While a handful of bailing units are in Kochi, (clustered in Perumbavoor), Palakkad, Thrissur and Kozhikode are also hubs, he says. Bales cost between Rs. 30 and Rs. 60 per kilo, amounting to almost Rs. 5,000 for one. “Prices depend on international rates for fibre. The demand for used bottles is now high enough for us to even import them. Just last month we brought 2,000 tonnes excavated from dumps in West Asia. If this import trend grows, the local market rates will fall,” says Markham. Even so, the demand for used PET from Kerala is high, he adds, because the majority of the bottles here are liquor bottles with a greater thickness that yields more fibre.

One of the key buyers of Kerala’s used PET in South India is Sulochana Mill for recycled polyester fibre at Palladam, between Tirupur and Coimbatore. Once the bales reach the mill, they are broken into flakes and undergo repeated washing with hot water and chemicals to remove all contaminants such as label paper and gum, says V.S. Ganesan, general manager, marketing. “This stage involves much manual labour as well. The clean flakes are then melted into filaments that are solidified into ‘recycled polyester fibre’ that has 80 per cent of the strength that virgin polyester has and can be used just like it is.” Thus clear bottles make white fibre, while the coloured bottles giving blue and green are 20 per cent of the produce. These are then spun into yarn, dyed different colours and used as synthetic fabric.

“The market for recycled polyesters has grown considerably in the last decade and so the business of procuring used bottles has become quite competitive,” says Shameer. While revolutionary in its technology, recycled polyester has been questioned for whether its elaborate processing method is environmentally sustainable. What it certainly does though, is keep the colossal waste from our consumerist cultures away from open dumps and landfills. It’s finally time to wear your garbage on your sleeve.