It can usually be found lurking somewhere amongst fashion brand offerings. While it is often marketed as being a greener, more conscious alternative, just how sustainable is recycled polyester?
The question of how sustainable is recycled polyester, is a tough question to answer, with its credentials being widely debated.
A simplistic view might argue that it’s recycled so it has to be good. But then one may recognise that it is polyester (i.e. plastic) after all.
Therefore, the purpose of this post is to decipher what virgin and recycled polyester actually are, before taking a high level look at both sides of the fibre story.
What is (virgin) polyester?
Polyester is the most commonly used fibre, making up 52% of fibres produced globally in 2020. You will undoubtedly have some hanging in your wardrobe (start by taking a peak at your activewear).
Polyester, also known by its chemical name polyethylene terephthalate (PET for short), is considered a synthetic fibre, derived from petroleum (which is a fossil fuel). In a nutshell, it is created from a chemical reaction involving coal, petroleum (from crude oil), air and water.
While it certainly has its advantages - being light, strong, easy to dye, easy to blend with other fibres, easy to wash, wrinkle resistant, and cheap (you get the picture) - it also has some downsides, particularly in relation to its environmental impact. Polyester doesn't biodegrade (it will be around for a long time), its production is energy intensive, it sheds microfibres, and it is essentially made from a non-renewable resource (oil).
What about recycled polyester?
Recycled polyester, also known as recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET for short), is derived from exisiting plastic (typically plastic bottles), not existing polyester fabric.
The recycling of plastic into rPET can occur in two ways;
Mechanically, the most common method, which involves shredding the plastic into flakes, before melting it down, and pulling it through spinnerets to make yarn (check out the super simple clip from tentree). This process does have its downside, with the fibre declining in quality, becoming shorter and weaker each time it is recycled (or reheated).
Chemical recycling essentially involves breaking down the plastic molecules so they can be remade into new plastics (or yarn). This process has the advantage of allowing for the retention of the quality of the original fibre. However, when it comes to repeat recycling (more of a closed loop system), unfortunately the technology and scalability just isn't quite there yet.
So is recycled polyester really a better alternative?
I feel "preferred" alternative is the best way to describe recycled polyester.
It certainly has its pros and cons. Let's take a look.
Recycled polyester is;
utilising existing plastic rather than relying on the creation of new materials.
diverting plastic waste from landfill and ultimately the oceans.
reducing the use of fossil fuels, utilising less energy, and emitting less carbon.
The not so good:
Recycled or not, polyester textiles are contributing to global micro-plastic pollution. In the same way that threads come away from our clothing, leaving lint in our dryers, synthetic clothing sheds synthetic fibres (or plastic) during both wash and wear. However, unlike our dryer lint, these fibres are so small, no ordinary washing machine filter is able to catch them. Neither are wastewater plants. Therefore, they head straight out to rivers, lakes and oceans, and are ingested by marine life (and if you eat seafood, possibly you).
Plastic isn't great at being recycled. As mentioned previously, the mechanical recycling process results in its degradation, becoming lower in quality. Therefore, the creation of recycled polyester essentially becomes a method of downcycling.
Recycled or not, polyester is trypically destined for landfill, as fibre-to-fibre recycling technology is still in its infancy. This is further complicated as polyester is commonly blended with other fibres (e.g. poly/cotton blend). These blends are almost impossible to seperate and therefore recycle (currently).
Recycled polyester seems to be a better option for today. However, from what I have read it doesn't seem to be a long term solution. There is a definite need for something better at closing that loop.
So what should we be doing? My simple suggestions:
As always, try to buy less!
Opt for those natural, more eco friendly fibres if they are available.
While it is OK to buy recycled polyester, because that is what is available today, we need to ensure that we are choosing wisely, and investing with longevity in mind.
Do our research and try to purchase from sustainable brands. Check what other sustainable practices they have in place, or even certifications. If in doubt, ask them! See below for some of my brand recommendations if you're in Europe.
Please get in touch or leave me a comment. I would love to know your thoughts on recycled polyester.
Thanks for reading.
This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions contained on this site are my own. I am not affiliated with any brands, products, or organisations mentioned, and do not receive any sponsorship, payment, or other compensation for any of the content on this site.