“Wearing polyester feels about the same as going about your day in a plastic bag,” ~ Bridget Eastgaard, After Grad Life Blog
That seems to be almost any fashionistas sentiment should you dare to offer them a 100% polyester piece of clothing to adorn. They can be hot, uncomfortable and cling to any and all odour like its life depended on it. Heaven forbid you should be caught in such garb in the middle of a heatwave.
A little bit on Virgin Polyester
Polyester is a market favourite in clothes production. It’s cheap, wrinkle-resistant, relatively durable and quick-drying so it’s understandable why so many clothes have a percentage of polyester mixed in them. Nevertheless, we’ve all come to find that anything cheap in fashion has a major impact to the environment. And that applies to virgin polyester as well. This energy-hungry, artificial fabric is synthesized from petrochemical products such as esters of dihydric alcohol and terpthalic acid. You can find out more about the complex process of polymerization here. Most polyester production processes use antimony as a catalyst – which is a carcinogen and quite toxic to the skin, heart, liver and lungs. Then there is the concern that perspiration can cause phthalates leaching onto the skin, which are hormone disrupting chemicals.
The textile production process is said to involve a large quantity of chemicals, water and fossil fuels which result in toxic raw material and by-products that contribute to air and water pollution. And because it’s non-biodegradable you know what that means for the earth and landfills. Not so environmentally-friendly, is it? However there is in fact an eco-friendly version to the textile, referred to as Recycled Polyester that seems to have found a way to overcome most of the conventional polyester’s disadvantages.
How is Recycled Polyester Different?
Unlike virgin polyester, the recycled polyester utilises a raw material known as PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate), a form of polyester that is best recognised as the clear plastic bottle containers you buy your soda or water in. Instead of ending up in a landfill or in the ocean, PET would go through a process that involves sterilizing, drying and crushing PET bottles into small chips. These chips will then be heated and passed through a spinneret to make yarn string, which will then have to be passed through crimping machines for a fluffier texture. The video below gives a clearer but brief explanation of the process:
Reasons why it’s Being Dubbed Ethical
- Most obvious advantage is that this process is helping to reduce air and water pollution, as well as soil contamination, by diverting PET bottles from landfills and giving them a second lease of life.
- The fact that it is non-biodegradable means that it could effectively reduce the dependence on petroleum as the raw material. This means that the process of creating recycled polyester from PET doesn’t need as much energy as creating virgin polyester. It’s estimated to use up to 53% less
- They can be used multiple times without massive quality degradation. That means that they could be used successfully in a re-use and recycle loop.
- Then there is the argument that technological advances have not only lead to less waste and pollution in the production of recycled polyester, but it’s improved on the old technique of polyester creation. That means a more breathable, hardwearing and lightweight fabric, challenging the ‘bad quality’ stereotype we associate with polyester.
However, Not Everyone Gives It the Green Light
- There’s the belief that if it doesn’t belong in a landfill, then why would it be lauded as safe for the human body? Taking into consideration that not all plastics are Bisphenol-A (BPA) free, a chemical that is an endocrine disrupter that Medical News Today describes as a “substance which interferes with the production, secretion, transport, action, function and elimination of natural hormones.”
- Synthetic garments have a reputation of being anti-breathability. And tampering with the oxygen levels making its way to our body leads to pH imbalances. The more restriction the skin is subjected to the more your body assumes an acidic disposition.
- With the knowledge that not all products set for recycling actually make it into the next wave of production, fast fashion is real, and that recycled polyester is in fact non-biodegradable, petroleum by-product, they will eventually end up in a landfill. Thus this don’t solve but instead delays the problem.
- Then there is the school of thought that believes re-creating these plastics as fabric, we validate the manufacture of more plastics when we should be ceasing or limiting the production to begin with.
Clothing Companies already in the Recycling Game
The idea of using recycled polyester isn’t a new one. In fact, Patagonia produced its first fleece jackets from recycled bottles in 1993. Since the 90s the range of textiles that can be made from the fabric has grown. Patagonia now makes about 82 products with recycled polyester a year? A month?. But the company goes a step further to encourage it’s consumer base to only buy new clothing when absolutely necessary and they’ve even set up a take-back scheme for worn-out clothes. Armani also started their recycle denim project in 1995, and the resulting jeans were so revolutionary at the time that they were put on display at the Science and technology Museum in Milan.
For more recent examples, Weekend Max Mara and Saluzzo Yams collaborated to create a curated garment selection made from Newlife yarn for the Spring-Summer 2014 collection. Newlife, which is a branch under Saluzzo Yarns, is a high-tech yarn made from recycled plastic bottles that is sturdy enough to make durable outdoor furniture or clothing. Their production process is also fully traceable, and entirely mechanical (reducing the chemical aspect), which is great for consumers who want to double check on a brand’s ethical credentials.
However the most recent and highly publicized recycled polyester dress was the custom gown worn by British actress – Emma Watson – at the 2016 Met Gala. Best known for her role as Hermione in the Harry Potter movie series, the black and white gown was made from recycled plastic bottles in a joint project by Calvin Klein and Eco-Age. The dress also used Newlife fabric, along with organic cotton and silk. What made the dress even more impressive is that the gown could be broken down into various re-wearable components – pieces that Watson intends to re-use at least 30 times before thinking about removing them from her closet.
Completely getting rid of synthetic fabrics isn’t an easy task. The fashion industry has found a way to predominantly subject consumers to synthetic fabrics in various areas of apparel. Is it the best product for the environment? The jury is still out on that. But it is a much better option than virgin polyester; particularly on the energy saving and pollutant reduction front.
However, the best option still boils down to recycling the clothes you already own, especially if they’re made from non-biodegradable fabrics. Buying less isn’t just great on your pocket, but it plays a crucial role in protecting the earth’s resource. What are your thoughts on the polyester debate? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.