What’s Wrong With Recycled Polyester?

Recycled polyester might seem like a good, environmentally friendly solution to fashion’s plastic pollution problem, but there’s still several issues with producing clothing using this material.

What is recycled polyester?

Recycled polyester, also known as rPET or recycled polyethylene terephthalate, is a synthetic material made from recycled plastics. It’s often produced using plastic bottles, though in some cases it is made from plastic waste recovered from the ocean. It has much of the same properties as regular polyester – strong, durable, lightweight – but typically has fewer carbon emissions associated with it as there’s less energy involved in making recycled polyester than there is virgin polyester. Sounds alright so far, doesn’t it?

Recycled polyester is often made from plastic bottles and pollution recovered from our rivers or oceans
Recycled polyester is often made from plastic bottles and pollution recovered from our rivers or oceans

Taking a source of waste and pollution and turning it into something new and useable is, of course, extremely useful and a good start on the way to a circular economy. It reduces the pressure on our planet by preventing items from going into landfill and rescuing them from places they should never have ended up (like the ocean). Using a fabric like this could be considered a reasonable first step for the fashion industry to take – it’s a known quantity (lots of fashion companies use virgin polyester), it requires less energy and less water. But the use of recycled polyester only serves to mask a larger problem in the fashion industry.

Fashion’s dirty secret

When talking about global carbon emissions, many news outlets will focus on aviation and shipping, or personal transport. Very few outlets will discuss industries such as fashion when “exposing” the biggest polluters of our planet. The reality though is that the fashion industry is responsible for 4-5 billion tonnes (8-10%) of global carbon emissions each year – to put this in perspective, the aviaton industry is responsible for just over 1 billion tonnes (2.5%) of global carbon emissions each year. That’s right, taking an international flight is less environmentally damaging than buying new clothes. Doesn’t seem right, does it?

Dyes used in the fashion industry often require a lot of water

The fashion industry isn’t just a big carbon emitter though, it also uses 79 trillion litres of water every year – and probably the same amount of polluting chemicals to create, process and dye fabrics, yarn and thread. Fashion is the source of up to 20% of global water pollution, as well as contributing 35% of all the microplastics which end up in our rivers and oceans each year – and on top of that, an estimated 92 milllion tonnes of textile waste is produced per year! This waste is often sent straight to landfill or burnt, as we all discovered to our shock in 2018 with the revelations that Burberry burned £28million worth of products to “protect its brand”.

What does this have to do with recycled polyester?

To put it bluntly, recycled polyester is often used as greenwashing, making consumers think a fashion brand is being more environmentally friendly without them actually having to change much about their supply chain or the way they do business – and many don’t seem at all willing to change the way they do things. Of the top 250 fashion retailers, 45% ignored Fashion Revolution’s invitation to respond to their transparency questionnaire and a further 2% declined to be involved. The average score among these 250 retailers is just 23%, meaning there’s a lot of fashion businesses that don’t want you as a consumer to know anything about their supply chain. I don’t know about you, but I find that quite scary – who knows what these brands are hiding from their customers?!

Always check the clothing label to see what your clothes are made of. This jacket is made of 100% recycled polyester on the outside, but the lining is regular nylon

Polyester remains one of the most popular fibres in fashion, with an estimated 60% of all garments being produced from it. However, the recycling industry’s ability to effectively recycle fibres including polyester has been described by the Director of the Recycling Textile Association as their “Achilles heel”. Despite the popularity of polyester among fashion brands, many are only pledging to increase the percentage of recycled polyester used in their products to 25%, meaning there’s still an awful lot of virgin polyester being used.

Aside from opaque supply chains and lacklustre commitments from brands, recycled polyester still has the same qualities as virgin polyester, meaning it doesn’t biodegrade and it sheds an awful lot of microfibres into our water supplies. It’s estimated that a single 6kg wash of average clothing releases as much as 700,000 microfibres – and up to 35% of all the microfibres found in our waterways have come from synthetic clothing. Aside from ending up in our oceans, there’s reasonable evidence to conclude that microfibres end up in the respiratory systems of workers in factories producing polyester fibres, potentially damaging the health of countless numbers of people worldwide.

How do we, as consumers and crafters, encourage sustainable change?

Here’s the good news – there’s actually quite a few ways in which the average person can make a difference.

Firstly, if you need to buy new clothes for whatever reason, read the labels and find out what the clothes are made of. If possible, steer clear of polyester, acrylic and nylon and instead try to look for clothes made of tencel, bamboo, linen or hemp. Consumer buying habits influence what the fashion industry will produce, so the less polyester we all buy, fewer fashion companies will produce clothes made from it.

If you need to buy clothes where polyester is the best or only choice (for example, lightweight raincoats), choose recycled polyester. While it’s still not the best choice overall, it’s far better than virgin polyester. There are, however, some clothes where you won’t be able to avoid polyester – like jeans – as it’s used in the thread. For those of us who make our own clothes, we should be actively choosing rPET threads instead of polyester and only using them when polyester is the best choice of thread (such as making anything which involves using denim). For regular sewing, we really need to change from habitually using cheap polyester threads and use organic cotton or tencel threads instead.

Recycled polyester thread is a good option for making items where you need the strength and durability of polyester thread
Recycled polyester thread is a good option for making items where you need the strength and durability of polyester thread, such as making jeans or dungarees

As with buying new clothes, when buying fabric we should be avoiding polyester wherever possible. If you must use polyester and can’t find any recycled fabrics, look for deadstock or vintage polyester – that way the fabric is getting used rather than going to landfill, and you aren’t helping to produce additional carbon emissions.

Finally, we can help to alleviate the pressure on our waterways by using and installing microfibre traps. The first and perhaps most well-known version of this is the Guppyfriend washing bag, though these are relatively expensive and can only fit a finite amount of clothes in them at any one time. However, there’s now also the PlanetCare Microfibre Filter which fits to the output pipe of your washing machine and captures all types of microfibres shed by your washing. They even have a closed loop recycling system for the cartridges – meaning once they’re used you just send them back to PlanetCare, free of charge, and they’ll recycle them.