Buying clothes in a climate change-era can be tricky. We try and do our best to make wise decisions, but those wise decisions can be skewed when we hear labels like “organic”, “vegan”, or “recycled”. We’re looking at these labels for guidance, but what’s better? “Organic” or “recycled”? What does it even mean if a fabric is labeled as such?
Polyester, in its truest form, is made up of ethylene which is produced from natural gas or crude oil. The ethylene is oxidized and then melted in order to create polyethylene terephthalate (PET). The PET chips are eventually spun into polyester fabric that we’re more familiar with. Besides the oil use to begin with, the process is very energy heavy. In most instances, polyester requires six times as much energy as hemp or cotton (both organic and non-organic) in order to produce.
Polyester’s source, oil, is not sustainable by nature, polyester requires more energy for production than its competing fabrics, and polyester produces more carbon dioxide emissions than cotton and hemp. However, the biggest downside to polyester is the fact that it is not biodegradable, like every other plastic product we consume. So what is the solution to our polyester/plastic problem? Recycled polyester!
Recycled polyester, rPET, was sought after as the solution to our overwhelming plastic addiction. We could take post-consumer plastic bottles and turn them into new polyester fabric to be sold to the masses. Then, we could claim we were doing our part for the environment, and the world would stop burning! But that’s not quite the case.
In order to make rPET, plastic bottles are sorted (only clear plastics can be recycled through this process) and then shredded. The shredded plastic is cleaned and shredded once more. Then, all remaining colorful plastics and paper labels are removed from the shreds. Once the mixture has been checked for being only clean, clear plastics, it is melted, spun, and threaded. These threads continue to go through additional processes of shredding, combing, and spinning until it is finally ready to be made into fabric. This whole process can end up taking more energy than what it took to make virgin polyester. Especially for every heating process, where most of the energy is needed.
One of the only pros to using polyester fabrics is the fact that it doesn’t use as much water to create compared to cotton. However, recycled polyester creates more water waste than virgin polyester due to the excessive cleaning processes. Furthermore, the creation of rPET chips gives off antimony, which is known to cause cancer.
Recycled polyester can help us reduce some of the plastic waste that is already floating out there in the world. But it doesn’t address our issue with microplastics. Every time we wash our polyester (virgin and recycled), tiny microplastics come off the clothing. Laundry bags and items like a cora ball can help avoid the run off, otherwise, the microplastics go down the drain of our washing machines and end up in our waterways.
When it comes down to it, recycled polyester only answers the sourcing issue of regular polyester. And even then, oil consumption is used in the additional energy need (unless, of course, the factory is using clean energy). So while it may be a step up from virgin polyester, it’s not something we can pat ourselves on the back about and call it a day.
Recycled polyester is not a sustainable answer. It is a flashy label that most companies use as a “good job” badge. If companies and consumers are content with their recycled goods, then that sets a dangerous precedent that we have solved our global issue. At the end of the day, neither type of polyester is biodegradable and you can only recycle the material so many times before it loses its strength and is no longer considered viable.
Just because something is recycled, doesn’t mean it’s the best option. And at this point, we need to be striving towards the best option because soon we won’t have any.