UAE startup turns single-use plastic bottles into T-shirts

DGrade will recycle over 4,000 tonnes of plastic water bottles into new T-shirts, caps and souvenirs for Dubai Expo 2020, writes Keith J Fernandez.

Each UAE resident throws away some 450 plastic bottles per year, according to waste management industry estimates. A simple calculation based on the most recent data (2011) puts the country’s aggregate annual waste at 4.3 billion bottles, with only a fraction of those recycled. The rest goes to landfills, where it takes anywhere from 450 to 1,000 years to decompose.

UAE-based DGrade is doing its bit for the environment by turning discarded plastic bottles into activewear, caps, bags and even reusable coffee cups. As of now, its products are set to be showcased at Expo Dubai – which was set for the end of 2020; however, has now been moved to the year 2021 due to the current outbreak of COVID-19.

“The range is made from 100% rPET [recycled polyethylene terephthalate],” says Kris Barber, founder and CEO of DGrade. “Each Expo t-shirt is made from 8-12 plastic bottles.”

Barber has been working with rPET technology since 2009. The textile industry veteran developed the idea in the UK, where he first created shopping bags made from recycled plastic bottles.

“We realised that the PET plastic in the bottles was actually polyester, which was already being created in the conventional way using oil. So, if we could process it and spin it back into yarn, we could produce polyester without oil,” Barber said in an earlier interview for Gulf News.

When he moved to Dubai and saw the vast amounts of plastic used, he realised there was an opportunity to help divert it from landfills while supplying sustainable products to local organisations.

While rPET is making its way into garments and accessories from established fashion brands and into car parts, DGrade is one of the few to focus on the entire cycle – from collecting plastic bottles to manufacturing the yarn and producing the item. Through its Simply Bottles initiative, the company partners with schools, businesses, events and the Dubai Municipality to increase the segregation, collection and recycling rates of the plastic bottles serving as its raw material.

From there, the process is less energy-intensive than creating virgin polyester: the plastic bottles are cleaned and shredded into flakes which are melted to produce fibres. These are then turned into a yarn that DGrade calls Greenspun.

“We produce over 200 different types of fabric, including jersey, quick-dry, canvas, denim, fleece and blends for a diverse range of items such as tees and Polos, caps, bags, uniforms, sports kits and accessories,” Barber explains.


DGrade began operations in the UAE in 2010 by selling sustainable clothing to local and international organisations. The predominantly B2B business designs and manufactures products according to customers’ specifications.

“By recycling their plastic into clothing, we support organisations in closing the loop and sourcing sustainably,” Barber says. “Right now, our operation is focused on UAE as our core mission is to find a solution for local plastic waste.”

The venture will take its next step towards that goal when it begins flaking the PET at a production facility in Abu Dhabi over the next few months.

“In 2018, we made a conscious decision to move from a supply chain model into the direct manufacturing of the yarns,” Barber explains.

Building sufficient volumes of feedstock and procuring funds were the main challenges. The success of the Simply Bottles programme helped DGrade secure $3 million in initial investment to cover most of the plant and machinery costs for the first phase of the project.

The fabric is currently produced by a long-term partner in southeast Asia, but much of the clothing is made in UAE. Barber hopes to augment operations with further investments in technical sorting equipment to improve yields.

“We are also expanding our headcount and are looking for working capital of $2 million in return for equity,” he reveals.

Hopefully, that will allow the now 15-strong team to make an even bigger dent in the mountains of plastic being sent to landfills.

“In 2019, we recycled over 200 tonnes of plastic. In 2020, our plant will be fully operational, and we plan to recycle more than 4,000 tons. This will increase to 10,000 tonnes by 2025,” Barber says.