It’s one of fashion’s trendiest fabrics, worn by influencers, eco lovers, and celebrities alike. But just how sustainable is recycled polyester? Like most fabrics, it has upsides and downsides. Which is why we’re going to take you through the pros and cons of recycled polyester in this post.
The Problem With Polyester
First off, let’s take a look at the problem. What is polyester? Well, it’s a plastic polymer derived from coal, acid, water, and petroleum based ethylene. Cheap to produce and undeniably wearable, polyester makes up around 64% of the global fibre market. But due to its basis in fossil fuels (which contribute to global heating), associations with fast fashion, and the fact that it’s often landfilled, polyester doesn’t have a great reputation. Invented in 1941 and advertised as a wrinkle-free “miracle fibre” in the 70s, polyester is now better known as one of fashion’s least sustainable materials.
An Alternative To Polyester
No wonder recycled polyester is having such a moment. Melted down, shredded and respun, PET plastics are now being recycled into polyester. Here’s why that’s a good thing -
Recycled Polyester: Pros
1. Avoids landfill
One of the chief advantages of recycled polyester is that it prevents non-biodegradable plastics from being buried, burnt, or being swept into the sea. And that’s a big win if you consider how much plastic we throw away every year (400 million tonnes globally). Recycled polyester is usually derived from PET plastic, specifically - plastic bottles. As these plastic bottles tend to be used just once before they’re discarded, it’s only logical that we reinvent and recycle them into something that we may use for a lifetime.
2. Same quality with fewer resources
Recycled polyester offers (almost) the same quality as virgin polyester, with half the effort. Statistics will always vary depending on the chosen study, but if we believe this one from 2017, recycled polyester requires 59% less energy to make. Sustainability is principally about reduction - so lowering inputs while maintaining outputs is a great sign.
3. Less CO₂
If less energy is being used, and no fossil fuels are being distilled (to make the polyester), greenhouse gas emissions are lower too. 32% lower to be precise. That has a bearing on the “global warming potential” of recycled polyester.
4. Excellent versatility
Polyester has garnered popularity because it is sporty, adaptable, and lightweight. Recycled polyester is no different. It can be used in everything from leggings to footwear to waterproof jackets. Or even as a carrier thread for other recycled fibres, helping to improve the quality of a given textile.
Recycled Polyester: Cons
1. Infinite recycling isn’t a thing
The vast majority of recycled polyester comes from mechanical recycling, which uses little energy and fewer resources than chemical recycling. Unfortunately, mechanical recycling reduces the fibre-length of the material every time it’s processed. Which is to say that the quality degrades even if the raw material doesn’t. Also - recycling PET plastic bottles into textiles may not be as amazing as it sounds. That’s because plastic bottles can already be recycled into other plastic bottles without loss of quality. Diverting them from this process potentially prevents them from being recycled indefinitely.
Fortunately, experts do expect polyester textile-to-textile recycling to become more common and viable in the future provided its infrastructure is improved.
2. Sheds microfibres
While recycled polyester is better for the environment than polyester, it still creates microplastics that enter waterways through wash cycles. This leaves it up to the consumer to buy microfibre catching bags or filters for their washing machines. The other solution is to buy (and make) recycled polyester styles that don’t need to be washed often - from trainers to jackets.
3. Natural fibres are probably better
Recycled polyester should probably be used sparingly because natural fibres like organic cotton, linen, and wool use even less energy and don’t shed microfibres. In 2021, recycled polyester made up just 3.6% of our fabric mix, while semi-synthetics like TENCEL™ Lyocell and naturals like Organic Cotton continued to make up the greater portion of our share.
How ethical is recycled polyester versus virgin polyester?
Virgin polyester is not necessarily unethical in the first place - unless we extend the term to the environment, or to the impact it may have on future generations. In this case, producing and using virgin polyester would not be ethical because it involves burning fossil fuels which increases climate change which will in turn cause displacement and worsen inequality. So you could say recycled polyester is more ethical because it is not directly linked to the use or extraction of fossil fuels. Making the most of existing resources and minimising landfill are also pretty ethical features of recycled polyester.
The rise of recycled polyester is good news for many fashion lovers and brands who are looking for a smart, sleek, and sustainable alternative to synthetics. It is an important fabric for circular economy proponents too, even though it isn’t yet closed-loop due to mechanical recycling’s negative impacts on quality. It should also be noted that recycled polyester is now being used by major fast fashion brands. While this is a good move, fast fashion habits are not. To make your recycled polyester garments sustainable, resist the temptation to buy and throw away in equal measure.