Recycled polyester is a fabric widely used in the textile and apparel industry to make fabrics for athletic and fashion clothing. It contains recycled plastic fibers made from polyester waste such as plastic bottles.
But how sustainable is recycled polyester? More and more eco-conscious consumers look for sustainable synthetic fabrics as a more ethical and responsible choice for clothing, especially for activewear and sports apparel.
So fashion brands and retailers create new eco-friendly collections from recycled plastics such as polyester to appeal to responsible buyers and become more sustainable.
Recycled polyester offers many advantages compared to virgin polyester fibers manufactured from the raw material. The most significant benefit is its lower environmental impact.
The innovative polyester fiber reduces greenhouse gas emissions, water, and energy consumption. It diverts plastic waste from landfills to create durable, sustainable fibers that can be used in textile fabrics.
Increased environmental awareness makes sustainability gain importance in the fashion industry. Rising concerns for people, animals, and the planet drive designers to use recycled polyester to create new clothes.
Here is everything you need to know about recycled polyester fabrics used in the fashion world and their sustainability.
How common is recycled polyester?
Recycled polyester, also called rPET, can be made from post-industrial waste or other post-consumer plastics such as discarded textiles or ocean waste.
Fashion brands use recycled materials to create sustainable clothing items and lower the environmental impact of apparel production and consumption.
The global textile and apparel industry is one of the largest polluter globally. It's responsible for huge amounts of waste, pollution, and carbon emissions.
Polyester is the most widely used fiber worldwide. 55 million tons of polyester fibers were produced in 2018. It represents 52 % of global fiber production.
Recycled fibers are usually used with digital printing sublimation techniques to craft stylish swimwear and activewear, pants, shirts, shorts, jeans, blouses, dresses, jackets, and more.
About recycled polyester fabric production
Polyester is made from synthetic materials derived from petroleum-based chemicals or petrochemical products. Polyester is also known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
Polyester is the most popular fiber used in the fashion world, for apparel and accessories. The manufacturing of polyester fibers involves the polymerization of synthesized polymers compounds made from oil-derived materials.
Recycled polyester is a more environmentally friendly alternative to the raw material from oil. Its manufacturing process begins with the collection of PET plastic bottles.
The bottles are sorted, chopped, melted, and reformulated into recycled polyester chips. Chips are then melted and extruded through spinning to form long filaments of polyester fiber.
Environmental impact of polyester
Plastic waste, including PET bottles, is quickly becoming a global environmental and social issue.
Every year, the world produces more than 300 million tons of plastic, as reported by the United Nations. Eight million tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean annually. Less than 10% of all plastic is recycled.
If current trends continue, our oceans could contain more plastic than fish by 2050. And the plastic industry could account for 20% of the world’s total oil consumption.
More than a million plastic bottles are sold around the world each minute. And the number of bottles sold yearly will increase to 583.3 billion in 2021, according to Euromonitor.
Raw material sourcing, extraction, and textile fabrication contribute massively to the disastrous environmental impact of fashion. Using recycled fibers like polyester for clothing reduces fashion's impact.
Recycled polyester water and energy savings
For each kilogram of recycled polyester fabric produced, up to 62% less energy and 99% less water are used compared to virgin polyester. Recycled polyester reduces carbon dioxide emissions by up to 20%.
To create polyester from crude oil, the oil needs to be refined first. Then, it undergoes chemical extraction.
Plastic polymers are created through polymerization. They are extruded into fibers through spinning before being spun into yarn.
The virgin polyester manufacturing process consumes a lot of energy, water, and chemicals. It also releases pollutants and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
On the other hand, recycled polyester removes the need for crude oil, refinery, and chemical extraction. Its fabrication requires plastic PET bottles.
Recycled polyester fabrics limit waste
Since it's made from post-industrial waste or other post-consumer plastics such as discarded textiles or ocean waste, recycled polyester creates up to 35% less waste than virgin polyester made from oil.
Oil is a finite resource, and we have to move away from it as soon as possible. Clothing made from recycled plastic waste, such as plastic bottles, reduces the environmental impact of clothing production and our dependence on oil drastically.
Plastic trash landing in the oceans is highly toxic and endangers ecosystems and marine life. It takes thousands of years to decompose in this wet and cold environment.
Turning ocean plastic and other plastic waste into new recycled fabrics for fashion is a technological revolution. It can save wildlife and our environment.
How easy is polyester recycling?
Recycled polyester fibers aren't as environmentally friendly as they seem. Recycling textile waste is a step in the right direction to make fashion more sustainable.
But recycling isn't nearly enough to limit the global plastic waste and microfiber pollution crisis.
Synthetic fabrics often used recycled polyester in blends of various materials, with elastane (spandex), nylon, or natural fibers, which makes recycling difficult, not commercially viable, even impossible in some cases.
And not all recycling processes are environmentally friendly. Recycling plastic consumes a lot of chemicals, energy, and water. A better way to reduce textile waste is upcycling.
Recycled polyester isn't biodegradable.
The biggest drawback of recycled polyester is its impact on the environment. Even when recycled, polyester isn't renewable, biodegradable, or compostable.
Polyester fibers take hundreds of years to decompose. As polyester breaks down, it releases toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases into the environment.
Synthetic fabrics made of polyester destroy ecosystems and nature. They contribute to the high amount of clothing waste that ends up in landfills every year.
Recycled polyester fabrics and microfibers
Even washing polyester fabrics release plastic microfibers into waterways that pollute entire food chains, kill land and marine wildlife, and endanger human health.
They escape through our plumbing and sewage systems. The water expelled from our washing machines transports these fibers to rivers, lakes, and oceans.
The volume of textile microfibers entering the world's oceans is increasing at an alarming rate.
The equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic is leaking into our oceans every minute of every day of the year, as reported by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
About 60% of synthetic fabrics are made of fossil fuels. And half a million tons of plastic microfibers are dumped into the ocean every year, the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles.
Ultimately, polyester can be recycled, recreated, remolded, and become brand new again to create new products, without having to use new resources.
Recycled polyester fabrics aren't the most sustainable fibers but their environmental impacts are much lower than virgin polyester made from oil.
Recycled polyester is a leading example of how the global textile and apparel industry works to find solutions to its catastrophic social and environmental impacts.
Sustainable alternatives to recycled plastics are already available, such as lyocell and biobased plastics. They make greener clothes, biobased, and biodegradable, that don't contribute to plastic waste and microfiber pollution.
About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.