From the Water to the Water: Rounds and Circles

Last summer, on what seemed to be the only sunny day in May, I had the pleasure to meet Peter Hornung, founder, CEO, creative director and PET bottles collector of Round Rivers, a young company turning river plastics into upcycled swimwear.
By the way, do you know what upcycling really means? Not yet? Well, you´re about to.

IM- A while ago, while idly scrolling through IG, a delightful image suddenly caught my attention: four ladies swimming in a circle, wearing red suits on a deep pool-turquoise blue. It turned out to be about a local company transforming PET bottles into swimwear. Wait – what? A company recycling plastic who does not use the word recycling or the image of a PET bottle in its campaign? I had to investigate.

PH- First of all: I know, the campaign is amazing! But it was not done by me! Laughs. It was in cooperation with the graphic designer Isabelle Seiffert and Sara Merz (a Zurich based photographer), who had the idea of showing the concept behind Round Rivers portraying the Limmat-Nixen, a Zurich based synchronized swimming club. What we do is take plastic out of the water, convert it and bring it back into the water again. That’s why the brand is called ROUND RIVERS: that image of the circle is a powerful abstraction of what we do.
And jumping straight to the topic of recycled fabrics, after some research I’m honestly telling you: there are endless companies claiming to use this type of materials, especially for swimwear, but I don’t know any brand that is fully “green”.

IM- I’ve read in an interview of yours about plastic bottles being produced only to be transformed into “recycled” fabric!

PH- Yes, this is very sad. Usually, sustainable fashion brands start with buying recycled fabrics, transform them into their designs and sell them. So far, there is a lack of transparency – nobody really knows where their raw material comes from. 
Ten years ago, an Italian company had this amazing idea: to collect plastic from the oceans and transform it into textiles to be then used for the fashion industry. Their slogan was something in the line of “Come clean the Oceans with us”. The existence of a similar project almost stopped me from starting my own journey.
However, after some research, I still could not find where the plastic actually came from and its percentage in the fabric. I wrote them, called them and yet I was not able to get any information. Perhaps, it meant that the percentage of recycled plastic in the fabric was not that high? This is the reason I started developing Round Rivers!

The fun part is that only earlier this year (April 2021), after receiving a lot of pressure from WWF and other big organizations, this company had to tell the truth. What do you think the percentage of fishing nets in their textile is?

IM- …30%?

PH- 1%. ONE. I thought the idea of this company was good, but it turns out that they were using a popular and attractive slogan just to make money.

IM- I´m speechless. I know you are very open about the percentage of recycled plastic in your textiles: 100% for men’s swimwear and 80% for women´s.

PH- Yes, absolutely. As a consumer it is really hard to pinpoint something really innovative, green and -let’s say- good for the future. But as soon as a company is 100% transparent, you as a consumer can read through it and see if they (and you) are actually doing something good for the planet or not. A lot of eco labels mention their fair and sustainable production but it mostly refers the last production step, the garment production – it is showing only the last 15-20% of the production chain. But what about the rest?
In order to know if something is really sustainable, you need to see through the entire supply chain. For me it is very essential, but I do not know any company doing that: it´s quite shocking. If you have a concept, you have to carry it on from A to Z. Perhaps it´s an architect’s thing. We both laugh.

IM- It reminds me of Freitag: if you dig into their philosophy and have the chance to visit their factory, you can really find this transparency.

PH- Absolutely. And this is also a perfect example of upcycling: giving a second life cycle to something destined for waste. It’s a topic I really enjoy discussing! Everyone is jumping on this theme, but we have to be careful, as there is recycling, upcycling and downcycling.
The perfect example for recycling is a PET-bottle. When it is correctly disposed, the PET-bottle becomes a new PET-bottle.
On the contrary, when textile companies buy granules from correctly disposed plastic bottles and transform them into sustainable fabrics, it is mostly a downcycling. It is a downcycling because most of the fabrics are a mixture of different yarns and therefore cannot be separated again after use. At the end of its life cycle it is waste. So, what sounds sustainable is not ecological at all.

Upcycling, on the other hand, means taking something that is already out of the circular economy (for example PET bottles found in a landfill or -in my case- in the river) and transforming them into a new product. This is, of course, the best option. It is crucial for consumers to know the source of the material, in order to choose consciously what to support. The different impact each of us can have is huge!

IM- This is indeed a mindset shift. Talking about the process, do you still collect all the plastic bottles by yourself? And where do you store them? I guess you need quite some space…

PH- Yes! I know it might sound weird, but to me it is a sort of meditation: I really enjoy collecting the bottles. Laughs.
Regarding the process, there’s some room for improvement and I have to be transparent. I fish the plastic bottles and store them in big bags; then the recycler comes, sorts them by colour (only transparent ones are selected, as the base of the yarn would otherwise not get the right tone) and sends them to the facility where the PET bottles are shredded into flakes (the first phase of the transformation process). Here is where we face the first issue: the flakes’ producer has a system that runs 24h and cannot be stopped for us. When we deliver to this company one ton of plastic bottles and on the same day take one ton of flakes out of the system, this is very likely to be mixed with other PET bottles. I cannot guarantee it’s 100% “my” bottles, nor tell you what the ratio is. At the end, this is not the main point, though: what we put in and pull out, is still local waste that does not get incinerated. But yes, we hope we can grow and collect enough to make our own batches, so we are able to produce our very own yarn without mixing.

IM- The word transparency keeps on popping up.

PH- Yes: companies should just tell the truth on where their product comes from – it helps everybody.

What a ride! After the interview, not only I had a sneak peak of the new collection (a very famous Swiss Designer just collaborated on RR’s latest men’s collection!) but I also went to the Limmat collection point itself! If you are curious on what´s coming next for Round Rivers, head to the website or Instagram page. Because yes, after launching a winter collection, RR is now planning on expanding to a big city, famous for fashion and its river.

Thanks Peter, it has been such an eye-opening conversation!

Sarah Ebling

          Sarah Ebling holds a professorship in Accessibility Studies at Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) and is a senior researcher at the University of Zurich. Her research focuses on natural language processing in the context of disabilities and special needs, specifically, sign language technology and automatic text simplification. Her groups’ contributions involve artificial intelligence techniques with a strong emphasis on user involvement. She is involved in various international and national projects and leads a large-scale Swiss innovation initiative entitled „Inclusive Information and Communication Technologies“ (2022-2026;