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Polyester

Team Zady

When we think of plastic, images of plastic bottles, grocery bags, and food containers instantly come to mind. While those are perhaps the most recognizable forms of plastic in our daily lives, our use of plastic extends to a less obvious area: our closets. There, soft plastic fibers known as polyester, acrylic, and nylon, disguise themselves in our clothes.

What is polyester?

Polyester is a synthetic plastic fiber made from petroleum. Petroleum, which is also known as crude oil, is a fossil fuel extracted from deep within the earth and used in many applications, including fuel for transportation, electricity generation, and, of course, in the creation of plastics. [1] Chemically, polyester is what is known as a polymer, which means it is a long chain of molecules that are strung together. Polymers have certain properties that make them useful. They are strong, they last a very long time, and they can be shaped into many different materials. They can be hard, like a canoe or surfboard, or soft, like the blouse you could have mistaken for silk. The most common type of polyester in our clothing is technically called polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. If PET sounds familiar, that is because it’s the same material used to make plastic bottles. Given how prevalent plastic bottles are in our lives, we might be tempted to think that PET is predominantly used to make them—but in reality, 60% of the world’s PET is used to make our clothes, while 30% is used to make plastic bottles. [2]

Synthetics in style

Synthetic materials play a leading role in our modern wardrobes. In 2007, polyester became the single most common fiber, found in 52% of our clothing. [3],[4] Cotton, now in second place, is used in 40% of our clothes.5 And the trend toward synthetic fibers is only expected to grow. Today, global polyester production is around 50 million tons. By 2030, it’s expected to be 70 million tons.6 More and more, the reality is that our clothing will be made of plastic.

So what is driving the use of polyester in our clothing? Polyester has many user-friendly properties. It wears well, is easy to maintain, doesn’t wrinkle, dries quickly, and doesn’t shrink. As a polymer, it is strong and durable, and can look good even after years of wear. Polyester also has many features that make it good for performance clothing. In athletic gear, like runner’s clothes or yoga pants, polyester helps to wick-away, rather than absorb, sweat. In cold weather gear, like what might be required by mountain climbers or skiers, polyester has superior insulation properties, helping keep us warm.

Another advantage of polyester is an economic one—it’s cheaper than natural materials. In 2014, a ton of cotton cost around $2,200, compared with $1,400 for a ton of polyester. [7] That makes polyester the favorite of fast fashion retailers, whose pursuit of race to the bottom prices precludes them from relying heavily on natural materials like linen, cotton, and wool. In fact, fast fashion has been responsible for a doubling in the demand for synthetic fibers over the last 15 years. [8]

Polyester and the environment

Let’s look at three ways that polyester impacts the environment: where it comes from, where it goes, and what happens when we wash it.

Where it comes from

One of the major reasons polyester is considered unsustainable is that it is made from petroleum, which is a fossil fuel. It’s now widely understood that the burning of fossil fuels, which releases carbon dioxide, is the cause of climate change. [9] In addition to being a polluting fiber, polyester is also considered a non-renewable fiber because it will take millions of years for the earth’s oil reserves to replenish.

Where it goes

Recall that as a polymer, polyester is extremely strong and long lasting. While this is a great feature when our polyester is hanging in our closet, it becomes a major problem when we decide to get rid of it. Polyester essentially doesn’t go away. It takes 20-200 years for polyester to decompose under the right conditions. Each year, Americans throw away 10.5 million tons of clothes, which works out to roughly 70 pounds of clothing thrown away by each American each year. [10] This isn’t an American phenomenon alone- the English throw out 66 pounds of clothing a year. [11] Because polyester and other synthetic fibers are made using many chemicals, in landfills, they release heavy metals and other chemical additives into the soil, which can end up polluting groundwater. [12]

When we wash it

When we wash our polyester clothes, microplastic fibers shed into our water. Each time we wash a polyester garment, it sheds 1,900 individual plastic microfibers. [13] These fibers flow through the water supply eventually making their way into our oceans. It is estimated that microplastic fibers make up 85% of the human-made material found on the world’s shorelines. These microplastics threaten delicate ecosystems, impact marine life, and wind back to us through the food chain.

Polyester clearly has its problems, but does it have any pros? Compared with cotton, polyester does have a few environmental advantages. When it comes to one of the world’s most precious resources—water—polyester uses relatively little water in the production of the raw fiber, whereas chemical cotton is the most water-intensive fiber in our wardrobes. Polyester also doesn’t use any agricultural land, whereas cotton uses 2.4% of the world’s cropland. [14] With growing land scarcity threatening food security, polyester doesn’t create competition for land between fibers and food.

Pondering polyester

For better or worse, polyester is here to stay. How can we apply what we know to become more conscious about our polyester consumption?

  • Buy recycled polyester fibers: Instead of using oil as the raw material source, recycled polyester uses existing PET, such as water bottles, to make fiber. It is still an oil-based product, but it reduces our reliance on oil reserves as the raw material source. Recycled PET has a few environmental advantages over virgin PET. Because recycled PET doesn’t start by extracting the oil from the earth, its energy requirements are much lower. In fact, it uses 33 to 53% less energy than virgin PET production. [15] It also emits less than half of the carbon dioxide generated by the production of virgin PET. [16] Finally, by using existing plastic that would otherwise end up in a landfill, it reduces waste. [17] We’d like to note here that plastics cannot be recycled forever. Each time a plastic is recycled, it gets a little weaker. After a couple of times, recycled plastics become virtually useless. So while we often think of recycling as diverting plastic waste, what it is actually doing is delaying that waste from entering our landfills. [18]

  • Don’t throw polyester away: As we’ve said before, throwing our clothes away is a lose-lose. No matter the material, we always recommend skipping the landfill. Polyester is at the top of that list for two reasons. First, it isn’t going anywhere in a landfill anytime soon. And second, it can readily be recycled or down cycled into carpeting, fiber for pillow or jacket filling, or many other plastic-based products. Despite this, since the 1960s, our plastic consumption has increased 30-fold, while our recycling rate has increased only 2-fold in that same period of time. [19] This means more plastic than ever, a lot of it threaded into our clothes, is ending up in our landfills. To responsibly dispose of polyester, look up a recycling center near you.

  • Buy what you love and buy it to last: Finally, by investing in clothing that we love and building a wardrobe that’s meant to last, we can do our part in breaking the cycle of plastic overconsumption and waste. In effect, whether buying natural fibers or synthetic ones, we follow the simple rules of buying less, buying better quality, and buying for the long haul.

References:

  1. http://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=41&t=6
  2. hWhy is recycled polyester considered a sustainable textile?
  3. If your clothes aren’t already made out of plastic, they will be
  4. Black S, Eco Chic 2008 via http://www.tedresearch.net/media/files/Polyester_Recycling.pdf
  5. The Water Footprint of Cotton Consumption pg. 10
  6. Man-Made Fibers Continue to Grow
  7. http://www.apic2014.com/download/SF%204%20-APIC2014_Global%20Fibers%20Overview.pdf page 19
  8. Waste Couture: Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry
  9. What causes climate change?
  10. Where Does Discarded Clothing Go?
  11. Well Dressed? The present and future sustainability of clothing and textiles in the United Kingdom pg. 2
  12. Muthu, S. S. (2015). Handbook of Sustainable Apparel Production. CRC Press. p. 158
  13. Inside the lonely fight against the biggest environmental problem you’ve never heard of
  14. [Cotton: a water wasting crop](http://wwf.panda.org/aboutourearth/aboutfreshwater/freshwaterproblems/thirsty_crops/cotton/ 0
  15. Why is recycled polyester considered a sustainable textile?
  16. Why is recycled polyester considered a sustainable textile?
  17. Why is recycled polyester considered a sustainable textile?
  18. Is recycled polyester fabric recyclable?
  19. Beyond natural fibers
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