Material Guide: Polyester - environmental issues and its complex relationship to fashion

Known for its durability, cheapness and versatility, polyester is one of the most used fibres in the textile industry, overtaking cotton production in 2002. It is derived from oil and, together with other synthetic materials, makes up for about 65% of the entire textile industry.

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Despite its popularity and extensive use, it’s no secret anymore that polyester is no angel when it comes to environmental issues. In 2015, more than 330 million barrels of oil were used to make polyester and other synthetic textiles, and the production of polyester uses even more CO2 than cotton. As an oil-based fibre, polyester textiles are not biodegradable like natural fibre materials - it can take up to 200 years for it to degrade!

Polyester was originally invented as a durable material to last for years and years on end. And no doubt it does - plastic and polyester are extremely resistant and long-lasting materials, made for products to last for a lifetime. It was made with the right intentions. The issue becomes clear in today’s consumerist society however, where most plastic is made for single use, and the fast fashion industry, where polyester is the dominant material, promotes a ‘wear once’ way of shopping.

Recycled Polyester - is it a solution?
Most of today’s textile production uses virgin polyester, however there is the alternative of recycled polyester, where most of the material for the yarn comes from recycled plastic, rPET, mainly from plastic bottles. The process of creating polyester from recycled plastic uses 30-50% less energy, and cuts the amount of plastic that ends up in landfill. Made-By Environmental Benchmark report has ranked the production process of recycled polyester as Class A, compared to virgin polyester as Class D, and conventional cotton and viscose (including bamboo viscose) as low as Class E.

While the production process of recycled polyester may seem like the answer to the matter, the end product still comes with issues. Everytime the plastic re-heats for recycling it degrades, meaning that it is not an unlimited process. The discolouration from the recycled plastic chips also makes it necessary for more dye to be used in the colouring process.

Microplastics and marine pollution
Microplastics are plastic particles of 1mm diameter or smaller. Because of their small size, they are often found in wastewater released in our seas, as studies have discovered that most filtering facilities can’t filter particles of this size, and the microplastics end up in our seas. Recent studies show that much of the microplastic in the ocean comes from synthetic textile fibres shed in washing machines, and as they are ingested by fish, shellfish and other aquatic animals they ultimately end up in the human food chain, creating a whole new health issue.

Researchers have found that a fleece jacket on average releases 1,7 grams of microplastics in each wash, and while the production process of recycled polyester might be environmentally good, plastics from these fibres will ultimately end up in our oceans anyway.

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Companies like Patagonia are at the forefront of recycled polyester research, having started already in 1993 as the first outdoor brand to develop clothing from recycled plastic. They have found in recent investigations that an estimated 110kg of microfibres can be released into local waterways daily for every 100,000 people - an equivalent to the pollution caused by approximately 15,000 plastic bags.

Is there a solution?
While choosing recycled polyester is already a step in the right direction - making the best out of polyester that already exists - the issue of microplastics and its polluting effects still remains.
Consumers are encouraged to do what they can to reduce their impact - for example purchasing better quality items that shed less. In addition, several start-up companies such as the Rozalia Project and Guppy Friend are developing and selling microfibre filters for use in domestic washing machines.