January 07, 2022
This article was originally titled "The Plastic Problem" in the 2022 Gear Guide issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
"I’ve got just one word for you, just one word. Are you listening?” Mr. Maguire asked Benjamin Braddock, the disillusioned young man played by Dustin Hoffman in the 1967 film The Graduate. Maguire’s one pearl of wisdom?
Businessman Maguire saw “a great future in plastics.” But in 2022, when more than 50 years of plastic production has created a staggering garbage problem across the globe, plastics seem more like a curse than a miracle—or at best, a necessary evil. Almost all fly fishers use plastic, from the nylon and polyester in our waders and packs to the synthetic insulation in our puffy jackets. Fly boxes are made of rigid polycarbonate, EVA foam, and silicone. The sunglasses we use to spot fish are also made of polycarbonate. We stay dry, warm, and organized thanks to plastics.
But the downside of plastics is that they won’t go away. “Every piece of plastic that humankind ever made is still on this planet,” explains Roland Geyer, professor of industrial ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Plastic food containers wash up on riverbanks and beaches. The Pacific Ocean now contains a Texas-sized patch of plastic garbage. Some plastic waste has been incinerated, which releases toxic gases into the air. But most plastics just pile up on or under the earth: In the U.S., where abundant land and transportation infrastructure allow for it, plastics are dumped into landfills.
Knowing that consumers were growing increasingly concerned about the environmental implications of the plastics they used and disposed of, plastics manufacturers developed the first recycling centers in the 1980s, but the movement to recycle post-consumer plastics never achieved large-scale success—mostly because developing the infrastructure is more costly than digging landfills. Even now, some 40 years later, 91% of the plastics that Americans toss into recycle bins never actually get reformed into new products—materials are often too contaminated, or the recycling infrastructure simply doesn’t exist.
However, one manufacturer of fly-fishing gear is on a mission to make recycling and recycled materials the norm, rather than the exception. Patagonia is upping the quantity of recycled materials it’s using to make its fly-fishing and outdoor gear. What’s more, the company is actively developing the infrastructure required to turn all things plastic—from waders to water bottles and even the sandwich bags we use to keep our lunch fresh while on the river—into newly usable goods.
It’s fitting that the push for recycling should come from a company that is owned and helmed by Yvon Chouinard, an avid fly fisher. After all, the catch-and-release philosophy that many anglers have adopted is, essentially, recycling: Returning the fish we catch back to the water lets them create new fishing experiences for someone else, or participate in the population’s regeneration by breeding new generations of fish. It only makes sense to extend that pay-it-forward approach to the gear we use.
Thus Patagonia is changing the narrative on virgin plastics and single-use products. If the company could revise Mr. Maguire’s advice to Ben, the script might read something like this:
“We’re running, not walking, toward recycled solutions,” says Pasha Whitmire, Patagonia’s materials engineer. As of fall 2021, 64% of the company’s entire product line uses recycled materials, from synthetics (including nylon, polyester, and Spandex) to natural material (such as cotton, down, wool, and cashmere). Patagonia’s fly-fishing line is 80% recycled: Since January 2020, the Swiftcurrent family of fishing waders (including the Expedition and Packable models) has used 100% recycled face fabric. The spring 2022 line of Stealth fishing packs uses 100% recycled nylon for the face fabric and 100% recycled polyester for the lining.
“No one believed we could build waders with recycled content,” admits Whitmire. In part, that’s because wader construction is incredibly complex, involving complicated seam construction and multiple materials. But also, the quality of recycled fabrics took some time to catch up to virgin synthetics, and the assumption that recycled materials are inferior still persists.
“That stigma is due for a revision,” says Ted Manning, manager of Patagonia’s Rivers unit.
Whitmire agrees. “I can say with certainty that the quality [of materials using recycled content] is AAA grade.” For proof, he points to the company’s lab tests, which have concluded that the new waders using recycled materials outperform the old ones by 30%. The product return rate bears that out. “We quantify the repair and return of all the things we sell, and waders—even though they’re our most complex products, bar none—rarely come back to us,” says Whitmire.
Patagonia brought plenty of experience to the challenge of building recycled waders and fishing packs. In 1993, it collaborated with Polartec to create the first-ever recycled polyester fleece, made of post-consumer plastic water bottles instead of virgin plastic resins. But Patagonia’s commitment to recycled materials spiked more recently, after the company completed a comprehensive assessment of its carbon footprint. “We discovered that 86% of our CO2 emissions came from materials alone,” says Whitmire.
Knowing that materials represented a much greater environmental impact than any other aspect of doing business, including transportation of product to operating workplaces for company employees, Patagonia put all its chips on improving the sustainability of its materials program. The production of recycled synthetics requires less energy and emits fewer greenhouse gases (by some 25%, according to some studies) and so recycled fabric became a top priority for Patagonia. Its goal is to make 100% of its products from recycled content.
Fortunately, the industrial processes that turn old synthetics into new materials are improving. Mechanical recycling preserves the plastic’s molecular structure by chopping it up and melting it so it can be reformed into new product. But contaminants (from food, for example) can weaken that second generation, especially when it’s extruded into the superfine fibers required for ultralight fabrics.
Though it’s more energy-intensive, chemical recycling uses solvents to split the plastic’s polymers and allow them to be reformulated into new plastic, in much the same way that virgin synthetics are produced. That’s why many of the technical products that Patagonia and other companies now make from recycled content equal the durability of those using virgin synthetics. Long-lived product is part of Patagonia’s sustainability push. “We need that gear to remain in service for as long as possible,” explains Manning. “It has to be the best quality product.”
There are additional factors to juggle when choosing recycled materials. The environmental value of any recycled material must outweigh the financial and environmental costs of producing it. That’s why there are currently very few sources of recycled polyurethane. (Patagonia is researching and developing bio-based alternatives to polyurethane.)
Impact to the waste stream is another factor that makes some recycled materials more desirable than others: Many recycled products use primarily post-industrial waste, such as fabric scraps. That’s good in that it requires no new petroleum to make second-generation plastic. But by not using post-consumer garbage, it doesn’t do anything to reduce the glut of plastic waste that’s polluting our land and water.
That’s why Patagonia is gradually switching to post-consumer sources of recycled material. The company’s venture capital fund, Tin Shed Ventures, supported California-based Bureo as it developed a path for collecting discarded fishing nets (primarily from Chile) and reformulating them into plastics for Patagonia’s ball caps, Trek’s bicycle water bottle cages, Carver’s skateboards, and Costa’s sunglasses. The “Untangled” collection released performance fishing frames in summer 2021. The Patagonia/Bureo partnership has so far prevented 400 tons of fishing nets from polluting the world’s oceans, and demand for NetPlus (Bureo’s recycled material) is growing. By next season, Patagonia’s SST Fishing Jacket will transition from 100% recycled nylon to Bureo’s post-consumer version.
Another Patagonia partnership is with Econyl, a nylon recycler that chemically reformulates discarded carpets, clothing, fishing nets, and industrial waste into new nylon fibers that are tough enough for use in packs and other abrasion-heavy gear. Econyl claims that its processes reduce the climate change impact of nylon by up to 90%, compared to virgin nylon made from crude oil.
But to truly scale up on recycled plastics, the U.S. and its sustainability allies must develop more recycling facilities. Most are currently located in China, India, and Japan, because investors in those countries are more willing to wait the 20 years or more that it takes for recycling facilities to generate financial returns on construction and development costs. That’s not so in the U.S., where abundant acreage makes landfills so cheap to build and operate that recycling centers seem cost-prohibitive.
Assumptions that we could simply offshore our garbage to the Pacific Rim ended in January 2018, when China stopped accepting recyclables from the U.S. and other overseas nations. It was generating too much of its own plastic to take in ours as well. India followed suit in March 2019. “That was a huge hit for us,” admits Whitmire. “We had to hit the reset button.”
Since then, Patagonia has switched much of its sourcing to Vietnam and the remaining recyclers in Asia. That’s triggered a lobbying battle to keep those borders open to recyclables and recycled material. Even in the U.S., a few recycling startups have emerged, some funded in part by government investment, but most being underwritten by corporations such as Coca-Cola, which is heavily invested in plastic.
“It helps that everyone is talking sustainability now,” says Whitmire, “including major corporations with tons of money that are talking about investing billions into recycling—which is fantastic.”
Ironically, Yvon Chouinard himself isn’t likely to buy or even wear Patagonia’s recycled fishing waders. When I met him a few years ago—at Patagonia’s media launch for its new women’s fishing line—Chouinard showed up on the banks of Idaho’s Fall River wearing patched waders that still showed little blue circles drawn in marker where he’d located the holes he repaired. He’d also driven to the river in a late-model Honda Element that advertised a long history of fixes. He clearly walked the talk of anti-consumerism that his company, Patagonia, has been advocating in an attempt to get people to buy less stuff.
One way to do that is to help consumers keep existing gear in circulation. Patagonia has ramped up its repair program and operates the largest gear repair facility in North America, where products are fixed at limited to no cost to consumers. In 2013, the launch of Patagonia’s Worn Wear program extended the life of repaired goods, and by 2017, Worn Wear items were being sold via the company’s website.
In 2019, Patagonia’s Worn Wear Fish Tour sent its repair team on the road, visiting a string of fly shops across the Western U.S. to perform free repairs on any fly-fishing soft goods—not just products made by Patagonia. And now, many of the product pages on Patagonia’s website include a “Buy Used” button that gives shoppers an easy way to detour from a new gear purchase to a used equivalent that promises continued serviceability.
“Over time, less and less of our global revenue is predicated on first-quality product,” Manning explains. Making product from recycled material is good—but from a sustainability standpoint, using existing gear is even better. Patagonia wants to broadcast that message loud and clear. Manning continues, “The best waders are ones that had three owners and lived nine years, preventing multiple pairs of new waders from being sold.”
Patagonia isn’t alone in its emphasis on using more recycled material. Other gear companies, including some that make products for fly fishers, are starting to switch to recycled content. That’s largely because supplier brands such as PrimaLoft, Polartec, and Gore are all reducing their reliance on virgin plastics in favor of recycled alternatives.
As part of its commitment to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050 and reducing its carbon emissions by 60% before 2030, Gore is increasing its use of recycled material in its fabric layups. It’s also evolving beyond its existing PTFE membranes to develop “an entirely new membrane material platform,” declares the company’s 2020 responsibility update.
Polartec, meanwhile, introduced a 100% recycled Power Fill synthetic insulation in 2018, and the following year announced a partnership with fabric engineering companies Unifi and Intrinsic Advanced Materials to achieve 100% recycled materials and biodegradability across its entire product line—for everything from fleeces to waterproof, breathable membranes. PrimaLoft also produces several synthetic insulations that use recycled material: PrimaLoft Bio is the first to be 100% recycled and biodegradable, and the company as a whole relies on 90% post-consumer recycled content.
With suppliers expanding their portfolios of recycled fabrics and insulations, it’s no surprise that some fly-fishing brands are switching from virgin to recycled options. For fall 2021, Simms started making its popular Fall Run Insulated Hoody (page 46 of this issue) and Vest with PrimaLoft Black Eco insulation (which is 60% recycled) and a 100% recycled polyester shell fabric.
“It’s recycled, but the performance and cost are also there, which is great,” explains Simms spokesperson John Frazier. “We would like to use more recycled materials, provided they meet our expectations for quality and performance.” Burly, 600-denier 100% recycled polyester achieves all three benchmarks in the Simms Challenger Mesh Duffel, which features the abrasion-resistant material on the bottom of the bag.
Orvis is another fly-fishing brand that’s starting to add recycled content to its line. The PRO Insulated Hoodie (page 45 of this issue) combines 80-gram Polartec Alpha insulation (55% recycled) with 80-gram PrimaLoft Gold Active (45% recycled).
Patagonia welcomes such competition, because the company believes that promoting the adoption of recycled materials amplifies its potential benefits for the global environment. “We want to bring everyone along with us, so that other companies can piggyback on our breakthroughs,” says Whitmire.
Though nondisclosure agreements prevent him from naming names, Whitmire says he’s coached other gear and apparel manufacturers (including some of the biggest players) on how to navigate the transition to recycled materials such as Econyl and NetPlus. Though companies might not be willing to conduct their own experiments with sustainable materials, they’re grateful to get a problem-free playbook from Patagonia. “We’re willing to pioneer this stuff through their imperfections because our commitment to sustainability is deeper than any one season or product,” explains Whitmire. Thus his how-to advice to other companies includes the trials and errors that they can skip over.
The payoff is savings for the planet. By using recycled content, Patagonia eliminated 20,000 tons of CO2 emissions in just one year. Imagine that on a widespread scale, proposes Whitmire. Patagonia calculates that if the entire clothing industry adopted its dedication to recycling, the energy saved could power every household in California for one year.
“We at Patagonia feel empowered to strive for these things that are gargantuan,” says Manning. “But we can’t do it unless we all lean in together.”
Patagonia Stealth Sling 10L
The new 10L Stealth Sling from Patagonia shows that it’s entirely possible to build a better product using recycled materials. This pack is light, quiet, comfortable, and is made almost entirely of post-consumer waste. The exterior is made from 100% recycled ripstop nylon, and the lining is 100% recycled polyester.
The sling is ambidextrous—you can switch the straps to accommodate either left-handed or right-handed casting, and the integrated net holster and the water bottle sleeve both work either way as well.
Internal magnets on the pack front and the shoulder straps serve as temporary docks for flies, and there are multiple D-rings, and other external attachment points for nippers, clamps, and zingers. There’s also a traditional hook-and-loop fly field on the shoulder strap.
The Stealth Sling also comes with a TRU Zip waterproof removable pouch that you can attach to the inside or outside of the pack. It’s absolutely essential for a pack that will last through many rainstorms and potential full-body dunkings. Speaking of wet outings, the anhydrous back panel is soft and comfortable, but it rejects water and never feels wet.
The outside zippered pocket provides quick storage for floatant, leaders, indicators, and other accessories, while the cavernous main compartment holds four to six large fly boxes with room left to spare.
The Stealth Sling 10L pack won the Fly Fisherman Gear Guide Green Award for 2022.
Patagonia Swiftcurrent Waders
Patagonia’s Swiftcurrent Waders use 100% recycled face fabrics, and at least 70% recycled fabric throughout. According to the company’s lab tests, the new 4-layer material in the Swiftcurrent series is 30% more durable than their previous waders, which were made with virgin materials. Patagonia’s goal is to make Swiftcurrent waders entirely from post-consumer recycled materials in the near future.
There are six different models in the Swiftcurrent lineup, ranging from Expedition to Packable. The burly men’s Swiftcurrent Expedition Zip-Front Waders ($749) with waterproof YKK front zippers include a host of other conveniences like two internal drop-in pockets, exterior zippered stash pockets, and a submersible waterproof internal pocket to hold your keys, phone, or wallet. All the Expedition waders have removable foam kneepads to allow you to kneel, crawl, or creep up on unsuspecting trout.
All Swiftcurrent waders also use a new EZ-Lock padded suspender system to produce a quick and precise fit regardless of your height or body type. The redesigned handwarmer pockets have fold-out wind flaps for warmth in frigid weather and for comfort.
At the other end of the spectrum, Swiftcurrent Packable Waders ($399) are designed for international travel, long hikes in the wilderness, or blazing hot weather. They weigh just 36 ounces, and fit into a stuff sack about the size of a large burrito.
All the models in the Swiftcurrent line have a gusseted crotch, which eliminates the need for complex taping and reinforcement, and creates waders that fit better and are more durable than any previous Patagonia waders.
The Secure Stretch wading belts have a 6-inch section of elastic fabric for flexibility and safety in the event of an unexpected swim, yet they won’t sag when you hang heavy objects such as bear spray from them.
Click here to watch Patagonia’s film, Why Recycled? To learn more about their recycled product development process and goals to create a sustainable future.
Kelly Bastone lives in Steamboat Springs with her daughter and husband. She is a full-time professional writer and has been published in Men’s Journal, The Denver Magazine, Outside, Runner’s World, Backpacker, and many other publications.