The survey conducted in April 2023 by Protein Evolution and Wakefield Research revealed a disparity in the fundamental understanding of how plastic waste impacts human life, despite consumers’ strong desire for a more sustainable future.

The findings highlight the ubiquity of plastic, the material’s ties to fossil fuels, and the mounting expectations for businesses to take action and responsibility for finding replacements for products derived from plastic.

Key findings from the report:

  • Almost all Americans (93%) overestimate the percentage of plastic products that are recycled and reused each year, including 35% who mistakenly think it is half or more. In reality, a report from Greenpeace cited a recycling rate of only 5-6% in 2021.
  • Nearly 7 in 10 Americans (69%) do not recognise that crude oil is used to produce new plastic products, including most textiles for clothing. The Center for International Environmental Law notes that over 99% of plastic is made from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels.
  • Nearly a third of surveyed adults (27%) believe none of their clothes contain the same raw materials used to manufacture plastic. Yet, the National Institutes of Health estimates that nearly 70% of clothing is made with polyester or other plastic-derived fabric. 
  • A massive 98% of Americans overestimate the actual amount of discarded textiles that are recycled, including 30% who falsely believe half or more are recycled.
  • Around 76% believe it is very or extremely important that companies increase the amount of recycled materials they use to make clothing and apparel, including 82% of parents.
  • Nearly 2 in 3 (66%) would be willing to pay more for clothes made from recycled polyester, including 40% who would pay $20+ more.

Why it matters

The report explains that traditional methods used to create virgin plastic or textile goods rely heavily on fossil fuels as feedstock. The existing plastic production process is extremely energy intensive and can result in problematic contaminants for the environment. Even more so, at the end of life, plastic and polyester waste contribute significant methane emissions due to landfilling and incineration in the United States.

“The future is going to be what we design it to be,” said Paul Anastas, professor at Yale University and science advisor to Protein Evolution (PEI). “If people knew that most of their clothes are petroleum-based, coming from an oil rig, they would probably demand that we do better. Solving the problem of plastic waste will require a variety of strategies and new technologies to move toward sustainable and circular materials.”

The Future of Textile Recycling

Protein Evolution, the CT-based biological recycling company that commissioned the survey, said it envisions a world where waste is no longer an environmental constraint, but rather a valuable resource that can reduce our reliance on Earth’s resources, including fossil fuels.

“By processing significant amounts of polyester waste per year in an enzymatic plant powered by our technology we not only divert waste from landfills and incinerators, but we reduce the need to produce new polyester from petroleum,” said Connor Lynn, chief business officer and co-founder of Protein Evolution. “Our goal is to leverage biology to lead the transition of the chemicals and materials industries to a lower-carbon, more circular economy. We know through market research, including this first-of-its-kind public opinion survey, that consumers care deeply about sustainability in the fashion industry, but they still lack knowledge about the true impact of plastic and textile waste. We have an opportunity to change that.”

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However, based on the findings, overall 89% of Americans believe that when it comes to reducing plastic waste, everyone has a role to play, including individuals.

The full report can be accessed here.