Emma Barber wants to make something very clear about DGrade, the UAE-based company that designs and produces clothing and accessories made from recycled plastic bottles. “Although we make products out of plastic, are are not about pushing plastic.”
Founded in 2010 by her husband, Kris, Emma joined the company as a director in 2017 after many years of working in the retail industry. Since its formation, DGrade has developed a special yarn called Greenspun and now has a clothing range that includes t-shirts, fleeces, shorts, cargo pants, waterproof and breathable jackets and denim.
DGrade also works with other companies to help them recycle their plastic.
Emma Barber tells The Livehealthy Podcast how DGrade aims to solve the problem of plastic pollution in a productive way.
What’s the story of DGrade?
Kris started the business in 2010 as a one-man-band in the UAE as a way to supply local organisations with sustainable products, but he wanted to take it to the next level and needed someone to help with corporate strategic methods, which was when I came on board.
The first thing was to look for a strategic investment partner and we were lucky to get a family of private investors with many years of experience in the plastics world. It meant we could be flexible and find our way together and be true to our core pillars.
Although we make products out of plastic, are are not about pushing plastic. We are trying to resolve the issue of plastic pollution. We are still a small team – fewer than 15 – but it’s an inclusive and dynamic team and it’s making a difference.
How do you make the fabric?
Making our fabric uses 20 percent less water, 50 percent less energy and 55 percent less carbon emissions.
It all starts with collecting the plastic bottles that get thrown away. We collect them and take them to our plant in Kizad in Abu Dhabi. There, they get scanned, hot and cold-washed by intelligent machinery and broken into small flakes.
It’s quite a long process, but a plastic bottle goes in and what comes out are small flakes of Polyethylene Terephthalate, or PET. This is high-quality plastic and could be used for food packaging but UAE regulations don’t allow that yet.
The PET flakes are then shipped overseas to be turned into fibre by heating and extruding it. The fibre is spun into Greenspan yarn, from which we can make hundreds of products. That is the bare bones of making plastic into fabric.
The reason we can’t yet make fibre here in the UAE is purely down to investment. We are speaking to the Interior Ministry and various government departments and they are all very supportive of getting manufacture going in the UAE so we really expect to be able to go from flake to fibre and fibre to yarn in the next phase.
At the moment, the UAE does not allow commercial dyeing as the water treatment plants can’t support the process so we send the yarn overseas for dyeing, but we really try hard to keep our carbon footprint down as low as we can. We make sure the containers we send out are full of PET and we send them to the closest places to here, which means India and Pakistan.
When the containers come back, the fabric is made up at a factory in Ajman. The fabric is very high quality and it makes high quality garments which carry a UAE label.
How do you get your plastic?
It’s actually quite hard. We need 1,500 tons of plastic a month. One ton of plastic equals roughly 50,000 bottles. A polar bear weighs a ton, so we need 1,500 polar bears every month. There is so much plastic here – 10 million water bottles are made every day, but there’s quite a lot of cynicism about recycling. People don’t believe plastic is being recycled and that’s because it isn’t. People are also inherently lazy. They just throw plastic away or put it in the wrong bin. It’s because they don’t believe plastic has any value. After all, you don’t see banknotes littering the ocean, even though they are made of plastic in some countries.
How do we get more plastic recycled?
Getting people to segregate plastic is a real challenge. People who do make an effort to put plastic into the recycling bin then see the refuse collection truck come along and throw all the rubbish in together. it is very frustrating. It’s not difficult to sort the recyclable material out – the difficulty comes when food waste goes in with it as you then get contamination. The biggest problems are gum and date pits that people spit into plastic bottles – that really messes with the machinery because the date pits are hard and the gum clogs up the machines, so I really urge people to just clean the plastic before putting it in the bin.
We are proponents of refuse, reduce and recycle and if only people reduced their usage by 50 percent, we are still talking five million bottles a day.
In 2017 we set up the Simply Bottles program, working with 200 schools and getting kids to collect bottles from their homes and school. it’s incredibly successful and we’ve collected millions.
We also work with various industries, such as hotels, water companies and small businesses to get their employees involved.
Before the pandemic we did events, too. We set up recycling platforms at the Formula 1 in 2019 and collected 76,000 bottles over three days and last December we delivered uniforms made out of recycled plastic to the F1 team at Yas Island.
But that still means we get only about 20 percent of what we need through Simply Bottles. The rest we buy and by making plastic a commodity, with someone who wants to buy it, companies are getting much better at sorting it and not taking it to landfill.
You don’t have to feel bad about using plastic as long as you recycle it and put it in the right bin.
How can people get their bottles to DGrade?
Unfortunately we can’t collect from individuals, simply because it’s incredibly expensive and it wouldn’t be environmentally friendly to send a truck out to every individual place. So get your school or university or company to join Simply Bottles. We also have a 24-hour drop-off point in Ras Al Khor in Dubai where you can leave your bottles in a skip. The address is on our website.
The fact is that the more companies get involved, the more plastic will be reused. We just don’t want plastic to go to landfill and if we can keep plastic in the circular economy, we won’t need to make so much of it, which is a good thing.
There’s enough plastic here in the UAE for sure – it’s just a matter of raising awareness. We are working with the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency to have a federal strategic collection scheme where consumers are rewarded with points and vouchers or maybe even cashback if they put plastic into a machine.
What about microplastics?
All clothing sheds fibre. Our fabric is high-quality and we are not into wear-it-once-and-chuck it. Most water treatment plants trap up to 99 percent of fibre before anything goes into the ocean, so that is a lot of capture.
Scientists who study this find that the highest percentage of fibre comes from nylon, not clothing made from PET, and those nylon fibres are from fishing nets and ropes. Yet there is absolutely no penalty imposed on fishing boats that come back with half their nets and throw the rest overboard.
Another really high percentage of microfibres comes from rubber. Tyres from the motor industry are a massive problem.
There is also no medical proof that miocrofibres cause any damage to humans, even when they are eaten by fish. Almost all the scientific studies done on microfibres have been debunked. PET is not toxic and no health authority has banned it, because it doesn’t cause harm to humans.
No one need feel concern about wearing a recycled shirt. It’s exactly the same as conventional polyester. All we are doing at DGrade is repurposing the plastic bottle to give it a longer life and to make a product that people need to buy. There’s an enormous demand for polyester and as populations grow and land becomes more scarce, the demand will grow. Cotton on the other hand is very land-and water-intensive. Polyester is easy and green to make.
We work with non-partial scientists, and another myth is that plastic doesn’t degrade – it does. Using glass and paper is actually much worse for the planet.
Where do you want to take DGrade?
We would love to be able to see the whole process through, from bottle to yarn. That would be a world first for the UAE and also give us real compatibility on price. Our prices are a bit higher but not hugely out of kilter with conventional polyester – plus we have the feel-good story.
Adidas, Nike, H&M and Zara are making clothing out of recycled plastic. We have a very high-quality trademarked yarn, Greenspun, and we are unique in that we are a B to B (business to business) company, so we can change decisions about procurement. Almost every uniform is made from polyester, so why not choose the sustainable option?
Plastic pollution is a big problem everywhere and we would love to take our business to other countries. We have interest from Africa, India and Indonesia. For the moment, we are trying to secure the second round of investment, which hopefully will get done very soon. We’re feeling good about the next five years.
Emma Barber, director of DGrade, was a guest on the Livehealthy podcast on June 23, 2021
Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.