Science·What on Earth?

Swimsuit designers embrace fabrics made from recycled fishing gear, plastic bottles

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at swimsuits made from recycled plastic and examine the problem of helium balloons ending up in the Great Lakes.

Also: Helium balloons are piling up in the Great Lakes

(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, Earthlings! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Swimsuit designers embrace fabrics made from recycled fishing gear, plastic bottles
  • Bosco Verticale: Italian residential towers reclaim nature
  • Helium balloons ending up in Great Lakes by the hundreds of thousands, says biologist

Swimsuit designers embrace fabrics made from recycled fishing gear, plastic bottles

(Bruno Balmokoun)

The fashion industry has a huge environmental footprint, generating an estimated 2.1 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2018 — more than France, Germany and the U.K. combined. The sector also doesn't recycle much: less than one per cent of material used to produce clothing is later made into new garments.

It's hard to find clothing for sale made from recycled materials, but when it comes to swimwear, designers across Canada are creating more and more sustainable options made from reprocessed fishing gear and plastic bottles.

Vancouver-based A Nettle's Tale launched its swimwear line, which is designed for a wide range of sizes and body types, through a crowdfunding campaign in 2014. It has used recycled polyester from the beginning, but in the early days, the only colour option was black.

"There's so many more colours and variants now available," said owner Julia Church, adding that manufacturers are responding to increased demand.

Beth Richards, a Toronto-based designer who has been offering "ethical" swimwear for 10 years and has been gradually increasing its recycled content, agrees. "There's more of a global awareness of climate change," she said. "I think people just really have the appetite for wanting to do what they can to … make really conscious decisions."

Swimwear is traditionally made from synthetic materials, i.e. plastics, such as nylon, polyester or spandex, so that it's stretchy and doesn't absorb too much water.

Sandra Vukovic, founder of Toronto-based VUK Swim, said swimwear also needs to be able to withstand chlorine, salt water and sun. Those factors degrade traditional swimwear material, making buying used less of an option. That's why designers are turning to recycled materials.

A Nettle's Tale has expanded beyond swimwear to tops, dresses, pants and shorts and chooses natural fibres such as cotton as sustainable materials for most of them. But as Church said, "You can't really make a linen swimsuit."

Polyester, which can be made from recycled bottles, is used for swimsuits with printed designs. Another popular material, used in solid-coloured swimsuits, is Econyl, a nylon fabric made by Italy-based Aquafil from discarded waste, including fishing gear that can pose a risk to wildlife if not removed from the ocean.

But the designers say sustainability is more than what clothing is made of — it's also about buying less often and wearing it for longer.

Naomie Caron, founder and designer of Montreal-based SELFISH swimwear, said she tries to ensure her designs won't go out of style. "That's why I use colours that are really timeless," said Caron (who is pictured above, alongside one of her designs). 

In fact, she tries to ensure that each item lasts a minimum of five years. Caron guarantees the stitches for a year and even offers a repair service so customers can make their swimwear last longer, although she said only a couple of items have needed repair since she launched in 2018. Caron also keeps leftover fabric scraps to create new items, such as headbands.

Vukovic designs all her bathing suit tops so they can also be worn as regular tops with pants or a skirt. That way, customers can invest in fewer pieces of clothing and get more use out of their swimwear, she said.

"If you buy a good-quality bathing suit that fits you really well that can last seasons and seasons, then that's the most sustainable way to do it."

Emily Chung

Reader feedback

Colleen Ross wrote about efforts to make concrete more environmentally friendly last week. Here are some responses:

Doug Smith: "Your recent article on making concrete greener missed one of the best ways to reduce GHGs associated with concrete — don't use concrete. Mass timber construction can replace concrete for large buildings and can actually reduce GHG emissions in the atmosphere. Other benefits are quieter, cleaner and faster construction sites. As well, mass timber is projected to be less expensive than concrete once it becomes more common. It weighs less and therefore attracts less damage during earthquakes."

David Sanguinetti: "I wanted to comment on your article related to reducing the carbon footprint of cement. One alternative that you missed is geopolymers. They have been around for a while (I believe the Brisbane Airport tarmac was made using geopolymer), and have much lower carbon footprints due to avoiding the need to calcine limestone, but they have generally been viewed unfavourably due to a need to cure them at high temperatures."

Inge Stahl: "The story about greening concrete was interesting. But I seem to remember an earlier What on Earth where you discussed how the demand for sand was changing landscapes and waterways in a very concerning way. Makes the environmental impact of concrete much higher."

Thanks, Inge. The item about sand mining was actually on CBC Radio's Quirks & Quarks last month. The web story can be found here.

Write us at

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

There's also a radio show and podcast!  Less than a week into the summer, and temperatures are already climbing. This week, What on Earth host Laura Lynch hears how prepared Canada is for hotter days and warmer nights and what can be learned from elsewhere. What on Earth airs Sunday at 12:30 p.m., 1 p.m. in Newfoundland. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.

The Big Picture: Bosco Verticale

Most of our environmental problems come down to the tension between nature and the structures we've built to satisfy our modern needs. We also know that reducing carbon emissions worldwide will entail greater population density — and that means more buildings. The brightest architectural minds are trying to figure out ways to create structures that meet our broader sustainability goals. When it comes to sheer daring, it's hard to beat two residential towers in Milan, Italy, designed by Stefano Boeri Architects. Named Bosco Verticale, or Vertical Forest, these buildings appear to be overcome by vegetation. That's intentional, of course. The complex, which was completed in 2014, contains more than 24,000 square feet of trees and shrubs — that is, two trees, eight shrubs and 40 bushes for each resident. The foliage not only sequesters carbon and improves air quality but creates an outer shell that keeps the units cooler in summer and warmer in winter. A proposed condo development in Toronto involving Danish "starchitect" Bjarke Ingels gives off a similarly leafy vibe.

(Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • A heat wave across the southern U.S. has led to concerns about the stability of the electrical grid in Texas (which went into crisis during a February cold snap). There are reports that one of the state's energy operators has been remotely raising the temperature in some people's homes in order to conserve power. While this has alarmed some Texans, apparently the possibility was spelled out in the fine print of their energy contracts.

  • Speaking of energy, you've probably read stories warning about the tremendous amounts of power required to keep the internet humming. In a new piece in the journal Joule, two energy researchers say that we may be overstating the environmental impact of all that computer usage.

Helium balloons ending up in Great Lakes by the hundreds of thousands, says biologist

(Submitted by Leanne Grieves)

The plastic balloons we use to mark some of the biggest milestones in our lives — births, deaths, graduations, homecomings, engagements, gender reveal parties — are ending up in the Great Lakes by the hundreds of thousands, according to an Ontario biologist who spent two weeks gathering trash. 

Leanne Grieves is a postdoctoral fellow at McMaster University in Hamilton who studies bird behaviour and communication. This summer, she's been working at Birds Canada at Long Point on the north shore of Lake Erie. 

Lake Erie is "really a glorious place to be," she said. What isn't so glorious is the trash, which became such an eyesore for Grieves that she couldn't help herself. 

"There is just so much garbage washing up on shore," she said. "After a couple of days driving up and down to our site, I just thought, this is ridiculous. We have to start cleaning this up."

Grieves and fellow biologist Ryan Ley started going up and down the shore, picking up whatever trash they found. In slightly less than two weeks, along seven kilometres of beach, they collected about 380 helium balloons.

"Sometimes I had to wade out in my rubber boots to get balloons that hadn't yet washed ashore," Grieves said. "Sometimes it would involve digging into the sand to extract balloons that had been buried and sometimes going up into the surrounding habitat to extract balloons from trees and shrubs." 

The mass release of balloons has been a way to celebrate special events for decades, but the practice is becoming increasingly controversial as studies highlight the environmental consequences.

While the balloons break down over time, they don't dissolve completely, and the smaller plastic debris ends up in nature, where animals can mistake it for food. 

On its website, the Canadian Wildlife Federation notes that balloons can travel long distances when carried by winds and currents, citing a report about a balloon released at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, that ended up 8,500 kilometres away, in Los Angeles.

Shiny, metallic-looking mylar balloons, in particular, have been known to cause fires or blackouts when they become entangled in power lines. 

One of Grieves's most striking finds was a balloon dated Dec. 13, 2020. "It was in quite good shape, so these balloons really do stick around in the environment for months, if not years." 

Grieves documented everything, including taking pictures of each balloon before stuffing it into a trash bag, and carefully noted the number collected and where. She also did a little math. Once she and Ley cleaned a section of beach, they returned the next day and counted every new balloon they found along that same stretch. 

Based on her calculations, she estimates two balloons wash up on every kilometre of Lake Erie's 1,400-kilometre shoreline every day. 

"It's possible that 960,000 balloons wash up on the Lake Erie shoreline every year," she said. "Even if my estimate is off by 50 per cent, that's half a million balloons that are washing up just on one of our Great Lakes. The potential impact of these balloons is staggering."

With the exception of a few Ontario communities passing their own bylaws, there is no provincial or federal legislation regulating the practice of releasing balloons. An NDP-sponsored petition to the House of Commons is trying to gain enough signatures to ban the release of helium balloons, along with sky lanterns, making it punishable by a fine. 

Grieves hopes by sharing her work, more people will understand the potential environmental consequences of releasing helium balloons. 

"Balloon releases are an ongoing issue and you can't just clean them up once, and we'll continue to clean them until we stop releasing them." 

Colin Butler

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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