Article By Tena @ Thinking Threads
Recycled polyester reduces fashion’s dependency on petroleum and our need for fossil fuels. Unlike virgin polyester, rPET needs no new resources, but uses existing waste. This is the reason recycled synthetics are popular in sustainable fashion. They (at least temporarily) keep the plastic bottles, fishing nets, and similar out of landfills and oceans.
We are entering an era of recycled plastic clothing.
Ok, perhaps not exactly. That was a bit of a bold claim.
Still, there are more and more brands that are using recycled polyester to make their products. Nowadays, we can also find recycled nylon (ECONYL), spandex (Spanflex), and similar materials in fashion. But because polyester (in its virgin and recycled form) is the most popular, we’ll focus on this material more closely.
As this fabric is getting popular, some are expressing concerns whether recycled plastic in fashion is a good thing.
After all, we now know that recycling isn’t the ultimate solution to our plastic problem. To paraphrase the famous saying, we can’t recycle our way into sustainability. So, if you are wondering if using recycled plastic in fashion will do anything, you are certainly not the only one.
I’ll tell you something right away: there’s no straightforward answer here. But I can offer you some hints and list what the science says about the topic.
Hopefully, this will help you decide for yourself!
Why recycled polyester in the first place?
Let’s start from the top: why are we using recycled polyester (and other synthetic materials) in fashion?
The large answer to this is because polyester makes up over half of the total global fiber production. According to one estimate, brands use it in over 60% of their clothes. Clearly, polyester is the most popular fabric in fashion.
The reason why we are slowly (read: very, very slowly) shifting away from polyester is that it comes from non-renewable resources. Additionally, it requires a lot of energy to produce and has a large carbon footprint. In case you didn’t know already, polyester is a term to describe different types of materials coming from coal, air, water, and petroleum. Yet, when we speak of polyester, we usually think of synthetic fiber, the one used in fashion. The polyester fabric is most commonly made from ethylene polyester (aka PET).
This is where recycled polyester (often listed as rPET or RePET) comes into the game, as a potential replacement for the regular polyester. However, we need to understand that, while it can come from recycling the polyester fiber, the majority of recycled polyester isn’t coming from fashion waste. Instead, it’s largely coming from recycling plastic bottles (and, in some cases, other plastic waste, like fishing nets).
That in itself isn’t bad. It’s more to say that recycled polyester isn’t about recycling textiles. Textile recycling exists but it is far from a widespread practice, as technology is still not quite there yet. Instead, recycled polyester (as well as other recycled synthetics) uses plastic from other industries. The most used resource is the single-use plastic bottles, simply because they hold high quantities of good quality PET. Unlike much of the textile, this PET doesn’t come with additional dyes and blends and is durable enough to go through the process of recycling and manufacturing synthetic fiber.
Now that we’ve got that covered, let’s do some comparisons.
Is recycled polyester better?
That is, better than virgin plastic?
Yes, recycled polyester is generally better than using virgin polyester in fashion.
Firstly, recycled polyester reduces fashion’s dependency on petroleum and our need for fossil fuels. Unlike virgin polyester, rPET needs no new resources, but uses existing waste. This is the reason recycled synthetics are popular in sustainable fashion. They (at least temporarily) keep the plastic bottles, fishing nets, and similar out of landfills and oceans.
Secondly, recycled polyester has a lower eco-footprint. It provides up to 75% less greenhouse gas emissions when compared to virgin polyester. That is significant and some other studies show lower energy and water footprints too, though more research is needed in the field.
Recycled polyester maintains the major properties that made polyester a popular material in the first place; rPET can keep flexibility, water resistance, and durability, and remains wrinkle-free.
Plus, recycled plastic materials can be used in fashion widely, from dresses to footwear and accessories. Not surprisingly, even big brands, like Zara and H&M are starting to use the material.
But that’s only one side of the story.
There’s another important question…
Is recycled plastic in clothes harmful?
Parallel to our attention turning towards alternative materials in fashion, there’s a growing concern with toxins in our clothes. And a big part of that concern is around clothes made from synthetic materials.
Virgin polyester isn’t toxic by itself.
Unlike, for example, cotton, which is treated by nasty pesticides and chemicals while growing, pure PET is clean in that sense. The problem occurs during the manufacturing process, when the fabric can (and too often is) treated with other compounds, from bleaches, fire-resistant chemicals, extra anti-wrinkling stuff, softeners, to synthetic dyes. When we speak of the toxins in our clothes, we are usually speaking of the toxins added during the manufacturing of those clothes. As with any other fabric, it’s important how we process it and not just how it grows or is produced.
As for recycled polyester, the logic is the same. Pure rPET isn’t toxic, providing that the bottles that go into making it aren’t contaminated with anything. There is a concern with antimony, a chemical used as a catalyst for plastic bottle production, which might cause cancer. The scientific community is still debating this, though the newest studies show that the concentration of antimony in PET is too low to be a threat to health.
Still, we need to know exactly how recycled material is treated to be fully safe. This is why it’s always a good idea to buy recycled polyester fashion from sustainable and transparent brands, instead of fast fashion companies. Big brands simply don’t give us enough information about where their materials come from.
But there’s more.
While recycled polyester isn’t directly harmful to human health, it can still be harmful to the environment.
As mentioned, rPET keeps the same polyester properties as the virgin version. This also includes the shredding of microfibers. Microfibres are tiny pieces of synthetic fibers that pass most of the conventional filters and end up in our water systems. As such, they quickly enter nature and contribute to microplastics pollution. Microplastics accumulate in nature and get passed through the food chain, from small ocean creatures all the way to humans. And the scary thing is that microplastics can actually harmand even kill small creatures when ingested. The scientists aren’t sure what the consequences for humans are but some believe that it’s not exactly good news.
Let’s put it this way:
Recycled polyester saves some plastics from ending up as waste and isn’t directly dangerous for our skin. Unfortunately, it still contributes to microplastic pollution, and thus may harm marine life. In other words, rPET isn’t a perfect solution for polyester in fashion.
So, what now?
Clothes from recycled polyester are usually better for the environment than clothes made with virgin polyester. If you have the choice between those two, I’d advise you to go with the recycled version.
But I want you to keep in mind that it’s not a solution on its own.
We need the whole fashion industry to slow down the consumption of resources and brands to prioritize sustainable and ethical production over profit.
As for us as individuals, my advice is to go for quality pieces that will last for a long time, and overall, buy less. And if you are looking to buy something new, choose to buy from transparent and slow fashion brands, instead of fast fashion companies.