Polyester: the Plastic Giant [TEXTILE SERIES 2]
Polyester is durable, versatile, lightweight, resistant to wrinkles, stains, and sunlight — all these qualities make it the dream textile for the fashion industry, which is why it has become the most widely used fiber in the world. Unlike natural fibers, the manufacture of polyester is not reliant on land and relatively affordable, making it a readily available textile that fuels the fast fashion industry. But although it comes up so frequently in our clothing tags, few are aware of the high environmental costs polyester carries through production, use, and disposal.
Polyester is actually a kind of plastic, produced through a chemical reaction involving coal, petroleum, air, and water. Compared to cotton, polyester uses less water to produce, but requires more energy and emits nearly three times more CO2 than cotton. As is common for most textiles, the dyeing process poses a threat to local freshwater supplies as untreated wastewater is often discharged directly into the environment.
Attempts at Change
To address the large amounts of wastewater, Adidas launched DryDye technology in 2012, which dyes polyester without using water and with 50% fewer chemicals and 50% less energy than traditional dyeing processes. Water used in the process is substituted by dye injected into the fabric using compressed carbon dioxide, which is later gasified. This provides an alternative to polluting dyeing processes but still fails to address the production of polyester itself.
Most consumers believe that their clothes stop damaging the environment once it enters their hands, but that is far from the truth. Synthetic textiles such as polyester and nylon shed tiny strands of plastic called microfibers every time they are washed in a washing machine. The amount that is shed is anywhere from a few thousand to 10 million per a load of laundry, depending on fabric type, blend, and quality. Although wastewater treatment plants filter 65-92% of microfibers, a significant amount of microfibers (equivalent to 15 plastic bags daily per 100 people) is still released into local waterways. These microfibers end up in oceans, where they soak up pollutants such as pesticides and chemicals, which are then eaten by small fish and plankton, concentrating toxins as they go up the food chain until they reach us.
Attempts at Change
Patagonia, a leading sustainable brand specializing in outdoor-wear, has partnered with a German company to develop the easy-to-use Guppy Friend, a filter bag that not only protects synthetic garments but also significantly reduces the number of microfibers that enter oceans from washing. Sadly, this product is only available in Europe and the United States. You can also invest in higher quality synthetic products, wash less often, or install a permanent washing machine filter.
Given its plastic origins, it’s no surprise that polyester is a non-biodegradable fiber. Most polyester nowadays is made from virgin polyester, which demands the extraction of petroleum. Polyester clothing thrown into landfills will not decompose for 20-200 years, all the while breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces that end up in oceans as microfiber.
Attempts at Change
Recycled polyester has made its way into the market, most commonly from recycled plastic bottles. This appears to be a more environmentally sustainable solution — it uses 30-50% less energy, eliminates the need for primary extraction of crude oil, and reduces plastics in landfills — and more than 20 brands have begun to produce it. Repreve, the world’s leading recycled fiber, has recycled over 20 million plastic bottles However, recycled polyester does have its limitations. Fleece made from recycled polyester has been shown to shed more microfibers and recycling plastic requires high temperatures, which releases carcinogenic antimony compounds into the atmosphere. Another alternative is bio-based polyester, which is made from renewable sources such as biowaste or plants. This could potentially be a greener option, with lower land and energy requirements, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and eliminates the problem of microfibers because of their natural origins.
As consumers, we can choose better, buy less, wash less, or opt for more sustainable textiles such as organic cotton, hemp, Tencel, or recycled or bio-based polyester to banish plastic from our closets.