Have you heard about recycled polyester? (rPET). This is where polyester fabric is made from single use PET bottles, i.e. the bottles of water and coke you buy at lunch. I have been hearing a lot about this and on the surface it sounds like an amazing solution, especially given ocean plastic problem. A 2016 Ellen Macarthur Foundation report cited that more than 8 million tonnes of plastic goes into the ocean each year – one garbage truck every minute! But is using PET bottles a marketing gimmick or is it actually a worthwhile exercise? To begin, lets rewind to look at polyester as a fabric.
What is polyester?
Polyester is a category of plastic made from coal and petroleum. There are many types of “poly”. For example, polyester applies to fabric, polycrylonitriles to yarn (sold as “acrylic” for knitting), polyethylene to water bottles and plastic bags. As we know, plastic is super useful for range of applications, and we wear it a lot! Have you considered when you bought a piece of ponte roma or scuba that it is in the same fabric family as a windbreaker or umbrella? At the end of the day it is all plastic.
“I’m a Barbie girl, in a Barbie world. Life in plastic, its fantastic. (“Barbie Girl” by Aqua, 1997).
Polyester is chemically produced. After a series of chemical reactions you end up with fibres which are then spun into fabric. More information here if you are interested.
Is there a problem with polyester?
As with many things, I am in two minds about polyester. From the usefulness angle I have no problem with it. There are many benefits of polyester, such as the kind of drape, lack of wrinkling. It is also great for outdoor use (as an aside, a serious hiker once wrote that cotton has no place on his body when he is in the Himalayas!) Crepe, georgette, satin, chiffon, scuba, and ponte roma are quite often 100% polyester. Going clockwise from the red dress on the picture, these me mades are crepe, jersey (on Mr Baby), poly twill, ponte roma).
The part of me that has polyester aversion probably stems from my mum telling me that polyester is bad because it is synthetic and does not breathe. But I am a child of the 80’s where cheap Hawaiian shirts and nasty men’s suits were the norm and fabric quality has improved significantly since then.
At the current time though the environmental angle is my primary concern. For starters, we all know about the impact of fossil fuel usage – and polyester is a product based on fossil fuels. Secondly, polyester contributes to the microplastic problem. These tiny plastic shards <1mm long do not biodegrade and are released by synthetic clothing with every laundry cycle. Washing machines and water treatment plants do not capture microplastics so they end up in the oceans and rivers being ingested by marine life. It is even in the water we drink, but no one knows what the long term effect is yet.
What is better about recycled polyester?
Recycled polyester is often touted as a green alternative to virgin polyester, because of the inputs (plastic bottles) and the fact that it turns waste into something usable with less energy required. There are a number of big brands (e.g. IKEA, H&M) that have committed increase their recycled polyester usage to 25% by 2020. In addition to this, there are smaller companies doing great things – here are a few examples.
- Patagonia is the leader in rPET, having made it since 1993. They now also include unusable manufacturing waste and worn-out garments in creating their polyester for their clothing.
- Thread International: you may have heard of this textile company that sells fabrics to the public made with a percentage of recycled polyester. For example, their demin contains 19% recycled polyester and their jersey is 50%. The operations are primarily in Haiti and Honduras and in 2017 it has picked up nearly 39 million plastic bottles.
- Spanish based RTW brand ECOALF. I can’t express how much I love the ethos behind this brand. One of the projects run by their foundation involved buying ocean trash (including bottles and fishing nets) from fishermen in Spain and turning this into polyester fabric. The clothes that are subsequently made are fashionable and reasonably priced (e.g. men’s trench coats or sports jackets made from 100% recycled polyester for around 200GBP).
What problems are there with recycled polyester?
All sounds a bit too good to be true so far, right? Like most things there are downsides. First and biggest on my list:
Recycled polyester does not solve the microplastics problem. When it is washed, micro plastics are still released.
Some other downsides:
- The quality of the rPET fibres produced may not of the same quality as the original product. In this case it needs to be blended with other fibres to create a viable fabric. This leads to questions over viability of plastic bottles as the inputs. My tutor at the Sustainable Fashion course told me she once heard about rPET being made where bottles were sourced from a bottle producing factory rather than trash!
- Polyester recycling is not “closed loop” (i.e. old polyester cannot be turned into new polyester indefinitely without degradation of the fabric’s properties). The technology for turning old fabric into new fabric is not yet mainstream, although companies like Patagonia are working on it. At this moment the infrastructure is set up for PET bottles. Whilst I accept this “open loop” addresses a little of the issue of PET bottles being thrown in oceans, it not the answer. For example, if you put your unsalable clothes in a textile bin, it might be shredded for things like mattress stuffing, insulation, carpet, which often end up in landfill at the end of its life. Reduction in production of PET bottles is what is going to solve that problem.
- Whilst it is great to have smaller brands doing great things to raise awareness, Greenpeace points out they do not have sufficient scale to make enough impact (compared to if the big players like H&M and Zara did more). So it can feel a bit like a PR greenwashing exercise.
So should I be looking for recycled polyester instead of virgin polyester?
I would say the best thing you could probably do is to avoid (quite unrealistic), use less, or launder less polyester (try spot cleaning instead). However, this is not to say that polyester is terrible and you should only be using natural fibres. There are environmental issues with just about every fibre given the over consumption of clothing and textiles.
For my part, my next windbreaker will be from Patagonia or ECOALF knowing that it is made from old ocean trash. Even if I do not believe rPET is the long term solution I still get angry at seeing pictures of ocean plastic (anyone watch Blue Planet II?) As for fabrics? The availability of rPET in the UK is limited and what I have seen isn’t particularly nice. I also don’t fancy shipping fabrics from the US just because it is recycled from plastic bottles. So for the moment I am going with sewing my stash and trying to use less. Finally, I will be buying a Guppyfriend bag to capture my microplastics whilst washing my polyester clothing. You can get one here too!