How Sustainable Is Recycled Polyester?
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, recycled 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?
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.
Now that we covered this, let us consider the pros and cons of using recycled polyester.
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.
This all sounds great, but it is not the full story…
Even if recycled, polyester is still plastic. When washed, it shreds microplastics. Microplastics are the tiny plastic pieces and fibers that are less than 5mm in length. They are too small to get caught in the filters and usually end into the water systems and, consequently, in the oceans. According to Fashion Revolution International, textiles are the single largest source of microplastics, making 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.
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.
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.