The Ecological Issues with Recycled Polyester

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Is Recycled Polyester Sustainable?

The “sustainable” fashion world is having a moment with recycled textiles, namely those made of plastic (*cough* polyester) - bonus points if it’s “ocean plastic.”

Though most of the fishing nets and water bottles rescued from the earth’s waterways and landfills to be made into textiles are used in athletic wear, like leggings and swimsuits, I’m starting to see “eco” polyester crop up in t-shirts and even denim. And Everlane just introduced a line of bras and panties made out of recycled plastic.

While I’m not an ethical purist, I’m still a bit confused by this trajectory, and feel that most efforts to recycle plastic in this way - unless they’re explicitly being used in goods that were always going to be made out of polyester (so, maybe some kinds of athletic wear) are ignoring the long view.

The Issues with Recycled Polyester

Micro-Plastics

For one, micro-fiber shedding doesn’t cease to be a problem just because the item is made with recycled polyester. According to Fashion United:

A paper published in 2011 in the journal Environmental Science Technology found that microfibers made up 85 percent of human-made debris on shorelines around the world. It doesn’t matter if garments are from virgin or recycled polyester, they both contribute to microplastics pollution.

Unsustainable Production

Breaking down plastic into recycled polyester requires toxic processes and unsustainable uses of resources like water. The recycling process works by breaking down plastics into small chips, but these chips are often not consistent in color. Producers, in order to create consistency in the base color before dyeing, may have to apply several rounds of bleach. Then, according to the same article:

“Inconsistency of dye uptake makes it hard to get good batch-to-batch color consistency and this can lead to high levels of re-dyeing, which requires high water, energy and chemical use.”

Carcinogenic Compounds

There’s also the fact that polyester - and plastic in general - is known to leech carcinogenic compounds as a result of the original production process (this is why you’re not supposed to drink out of water bottles that have been stored for more than a few months). Comparatively little research has been done on impacts for the recycled plastic market, but it’s safe to say that textiles and other goods made out of rPET (recycled polyester) carry the same risks.

Breakdown in the Circular Economy

Polyester in any form is not biodegradable. If we were able to create a circular economy in the world of plastics - reusing most if not all of it for new goods - not withstanding other issues, this would definitely be a step in the right direction.

But I think it’s better to reduce consumer interest in polyester-based textiles as soon as possible, because it’s awfully hard to differentiate between a recycled and virgin textile garment out there in the real world. Some specialty goods - especially waterproof coats and things like that - will still benefit from recycled plastic, but I cringe at the thought that all my every day t-shirts and jeans are going to more heavily rely on fibers that aren’t good for the earth, and don’t even feel good on my skin.

Misleading Messages

As long as we fail to nuance the widespread enthusiasm around recycling plastics into textiles, we will continue to allow a kind of release valve for over-consumption of single use plastics like water bottles.

The current marketing around recycling fails to account for the fact that it is directly reliant on the production of new plastics, which means the rPET market is inherently unsustainable. In the face of recycling crises around the US - with many US cities canceling their recycling programs - we can’t continue to consume plastic packaging with the misguided idea that we’ll be able to purchase it as a swimsuit next season.

All that to say, while we shouldn’t feel guilty for having some recycled plastics - and even regular plastics - in our lives, we may want to reconsider putting all of our lobbying weight behind an eco-innovation that is in danger of becoming the end-all-be-all of what marketers mean when they use the term, “sustainable.”

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In a week or so, I’ll be sharing more information on why I choose natural fibers for most of my clothing along with a roundup of natural fiber brands making great items for fall and winter.