About 49 percent of the world’s clothing is made of polyester and forecasts show this to nearly double by 2030. The Athleisure trend has led a growing number of consumers to be interested in more flexible, more resistant garments. But polyester is not a sustainable textile option, as it is made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the most common type of plastic in the world. In short, the majority of our clothes come from crude oil. Recycled polyester is obtained by melting down existing plastic and re-spinning it into new polyester fibre. To give an example, five water bottles yield enough fibre for one T-shirt.
As the awareness about the environmental impact of using plastic increases, recycled material and in particular-recycled polyester are becoming trends. Even the big brands are picking it up. After all, recycling means good, right? Well, as usual-things are not that simple. Before we rush to buying, we should ask ourselves: how sustainable is recycled polyester? Although recycling plastic sounds like an indisputable good idea, recycled polyester is far from being the best sustainable fashion solution.
Recycled Swimwear FAQs
It's far from sustainable. Recycled polyester is toxic to the earth and the wearer. Among the trend is recycled plastic bottles being turned into fabrics which are considered sustainable to keep from them piling in the landfills. If plastic bottles don't belong in the landfills, they certainly don't belong on the body.
Recycled polyester is just as good as virgin polyester but takes less resources to make - Recycled polyester is almost the same as virgin polyester in terms of quality, but its production requires 59 percent less energy compared to virgin polyester.
By limiting the use of virgin materials, recycled polyester dramatically lowers its environmental impact versus traditional polyester. Recycled polyester: Reduces reliance on virgin petroleum as a raw material. Decreases greenhouse gas emissions from creating and processing virgin polyester.
That has happened in the past.” If all the steps were followed properly, then is the end recycled polyester product, whether that be a swimsuit or shoe, safe to wear? In short: yes, it's safe to wear clothing, even underwear, made from post-consumer plastic water bottles.
Recycled Nylon has the same benefits as recycled polyester: It diverts waste from landfills and its production uses much fewer resources than virgin nylon (including water, energy and fossil fuel). A large part of the recycled nylon produced comes from old fishing nets.
Basics first: What is polyester anyway?
Polyester is a synthetic fiber patented in 1941. Since then, it has come a long way and became the most popular material in the fashion industry. Today, the international production of the polyester reaches 76.66 million tons and it holds 55% of the market share in the global fiber market. Polyester’s popularity is not surprising considering it makes durable, cheap and easily available fabric. However, it is highly unsustainable. Polyester comes from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the most common type of plastic in the world.
This is where the recycled polyester comes into the game. Recycled polyester is produced from recycled sources: PET bottles, industrial polyester waste, and even garments. In other words, instead of throwing away the plastic, an increasing number of brands and manufacturers are turning them into new products.
The use of the material has grown ever since. By 1968 synthetic fibres, such as polyester, surpassed the use of natural fibres including cotton and wool. Polyester is made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource, which in itself makes it an incredibly unsustainable material. In addition, the production process is energy-intensive, and the dyeing, in particular, requires high temperatures. The processing of petrochemicals results in large quantities of hazardous waste and the emissions can be irreversibly damaging to air, soil, and water. Now that we covered this, let us consider the pros and cons of using recycled polyester.
Recycled Polyester: The Pros
Perhaps the best side of recycled polyester is the fact that recycling and using the plastic to create fabric is preventing that same plastic from being wasted. Considering how much plastic there already is in the landfills, finding a way to reuse it is a better option. Post-consumer material plays an important role in reducing our waste.
The fabric made out of recycled polyester has a smaller environmental footprint, compared with the regular or virgin polyester. There is no need to extract further resources from the Earth to produce it. Additionally, the production of recycled polyester requires 59% less energy.
Regardless of this, the recycled polyester keeps all the benefits of the virgin polyester. It turns into strong, stretchable, lightweight material that is resistant to many chemicals. It is possible to make equally high performing activewear with the recycled material.
Keeping Plastics from Going to Landfill and the Ocean
Recycled polyester gives a second life to a material that’s not biodegradable and would otherwise end up in landfill or the ocean. 8 million metric tons of plastics enter the ocean every year, on top of the estimated 150 million metric tons that cucycled Polyester Is Just as Good as Virgin Polyester but Takes Less Resources to Make
Recycled polyester is almost the same as virgin polyester in terms of quality, but its production requires 59 percent less energy compared to virgin polyester. Manufactures of recycled polyester, aim to reduce CO2 emissions by 32 percent in comparison to regular polyester. In addition, recycled polyester can contribute to reducing the extraction of crude oil and natural gas from the Earth to make more plastic.
So, if polyester is so bad, how can it be so popular? Well, polyester is a strong material, it’s easy to care for, and it’s wrinkle resistant. It doesn’t absorb moisture, which reduces the need for tumble drying after washing, and these are all great things from a consumer perspective. Production-wise it also uses significantly less water than the manufacturing of cotton, and last but not least; it is recyclable. Polyester can supposedly be recycled numerous times into a material of equal quality to that of the virgin fibre and there’s certainly enough polyester textiles out there to be recycled, which could potentially lower the demand for virgin polyester. This leads us to the cons of recycled polyester. Because there’s one major con and I’ve only recently realized the extent of it.
Recycled Polyester: The Cons
Even if recycled, polyester is still plastic. When washed, it shreds microplastics. Microplastics are the tiny plastic pieces and fibers that are less than 5 mm in length. They are too small to get caught in the filters and usually end up in the water systems and, consequently, in the oceans. According to Fashion Revolution International, textiles are the single largest source of microplastics, making up 34.8% of global microplastic pollution. This has devastating consequences on marine life and the ecosystem.
Unlike materials such as glass and metal, plastic cannot be recycled forever. Already quite a complex process in itself, recycling actually downgrades the plastic. It means that the material eventually loses its original quality. The same piece of the plastic can only be recycled about 2-3 times before its quality decreases so much that it is no longer usable.
Finally, the recycling process of polyester still has a significant environmental impact. It may be lower than making of the new plastic, but apart from CO2 being released, the process uses chemicals to achieve the colour consistency, as relying on the mechanical procedure will not guarantee this. Unfortunately, the handling and disposal of the chemical material are not always transparent.
Recycling Plastic Has Its Limitations
Many garments are not made from polyester alone, but rather a blend of polyester and other materials. In that case, it is more difficult, if not impossible, to recycle them.
Even clothes that are 100 percent polyester can’t be recycled forever. There are two ways to recycle PET: mechanically and chemically. Mechanical recycling is taking a plastic bottle, washing it, shredding it and then turning it back into a polyester chip, which then goes through the traditional fibre making process. Chemical recycling is taking a waste plastic product and returning it to its original monomers, which are indistinguishable from virgin polyester. Those can then go back into the regular polyester manufacturing system. Most recycled polyester is obtained through mechanical recycling, as it is the less costly of the two processes and it requires no chemicals other than the detergents needed to clean the input materials. However, through the mechanical process, the fibre can lose its strength and thus needs to be mixed with virgin fibre.
The Process of Recycling Pet Impacts the Environment, Too
The polyester chips generated by mechanical recycling can vary in colour: some turn out crispy white, while others are creamy yellow, making colour consistency difficult to achieve. Some dyers find it hard to get a white, so they’re using chlorine-based bleaches to whiten the base, inconsistency of dye uptake makes it hard to get good batch-to-batch colour consistency and this can lead to high levels of re-dyeing, which requires high water, energy and chemical use.
Recycled Polyester Releases Microplastics
Last but not least, some counter argue the affirmation that recycled polyester keeps plastic from ending in the oceans. They still do a little, as man-made fabrics can release microscopic plastic fibres - the infamous microplastics. According to a recent study by a team from Plymouth University, in the UK, each cycle of a washing machine could release more than 700,000 plastic fibres into the environment.
First of all, recycled polyester garments are often made from recycled PET bottles, not old garments. And while it’s great we’ve found a use for all those non-reusable plastic bottles we consume, it also means that there are still a lot of polyester garments out there, in landfills around the world, which do not biodegrade.
Second of all, have you heard of micro plastic? Apparently, when you wash your polyester clothes (virgin or recycled) they shed these little fibres that are so small that the filtering in our washing machines and wastewater treatment plants can’t catch them, so they end up in our waterways and our oceans, where fish will eventually eat them. And so, if you eat fish you’re probably eating plastic too.
While, the most sustainable thing to do, might be to burn all the plastic and synthetic fibres out there (in a responsible way of course – maybe creating some heating for houses in the process), and then never produce virgin materials out of crude oil ever again, it is probably not the most viable thing to do at this stage. After all, polyester is great for active wear, yoga wear and swimwear.
So, What Now?
Materials in our clothes matter. Recycled polyester, like every other material, comes with pros and cons. Comparing it with the virgin polyester, it is far less harmful to the environment. However, it is not always the most sustainable answer. Whenever you are choosing your next garment, be mindful about it, as nothing is black and white. Here’s how to minimise your impact and what we recommend you do too:
- Choose recycled polyester over virgin. Always. Choose natural materials when you can.
- Choose quality over quantity – quality garments seem to shed less
- Wash less often and invest in a front-load washing machine – studies have shown that polyester clothes shed more fibres in a top loading machine than in a front loader.
- Use fibre filter bags like Guppy Friend as they seem to make a difference when you launder.
As with most sustainable materials, there are both positives and negatives but going down a sustainable route will help reduce the impact fashion is having on the environment. While we cannot completely avoid the negative sides of recycled polyester, buying less of it and opting for higher quality (it will shred less) is a good way to combat this. In general, opting for brands that offer high quality fabrics and transparency is a sustainable choice.