What are the Pros and Cons of Recycled Polyester?

About 49 percent of the world’s clothing is made of polyester and forecasts show this to nearly double by 2030. 

5 min read time | Mar 27, 2024 | Written by: Weavabel
Used plastic bottles

About 49 percent of the world’s clothing is made of polyester and forecasts show this to nearly double by 2030. Athleisure trend has led a growing number of consumers to be interested in more flexible, more resistant garments. But polyester is not a sustainable textile option, as it is made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the most common type of plastic in the world. In short, the majority of our clothes come from crude oil.

Recycled polyester, also known as rPET, is obtained by melting down existing plastic and re-spinning it into new polyester fibre. To give an example, five water bottles yield enough fibre for one T-shirt.

Although recycling plastic sounds like an indisputable good idea, recycled polyester is far from being the best sustainable fashion solution. Here is why;

Recycled polyester: the pros

1. Keeping plastics from going to landfill and the ocean - Recycled polyester gives a second life to a material that’s not biodegradable and would otherwise end up in landfill or the ocean. 8 million metric tons of plastics enter the ocean every year, on top of the estimated 150 million metric tons that currently circulate in marine environments. If we keep this pace, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

Bottle in the ocean

2. Recycled polyester is just as good as virgin polyester but takes less resources to make - Recycled polyester is almost the same as virgin polyester in terms of quality, but its production requires 59 percent less energy compared to virgin polyester. Manufactures of recycled polyester, aim to reduce CO2 emissions by 32 percent in comparison to regular polyester. In addition, recycled polyester can contribute to reduce the extraction of crude oil and natural gas from the earth to make more plastic. 

Textiles cheat sheet

Recycled polyester: the cons

1. Recycling plastic has its limitations - Many garments are not made from polyester alone, but rather a blend of polyester and other materials. In that case, it is more difficult, if not impossible, to recycle them.

Even clothes that are 100 percent polyester can’t be recycled forever. There are two ways to recycle PET: mechanically and chemically. Mechanical recycling is taking a plastic bottle, washing it, shredding it and then turning it back into a polyester chip, which then goes through the traditional fibre making process. Chemical recycling is taking a waste plastic product and returning it to its original monomers, which are indistinguishable from virgin polyester. Those can then go back into the regular polyester manufacturing system. Most recycled polyester is obtained through mechanical recycling, as it is the less costly of the two processes and it requires no chemicals other than the detergents needed to clean the input materials. However, through the mechanical process, the fibre can lose its strength and thus needs to be mixed with virgin fibre.

Plastic bottle recycling plant

2. The process of recycling PET impacts the environment, too-The polyester chips generated by mechanical recycling can vary in colour: some turn out crispy white, while others are creamy yellow, making colour consistency difficult to achieve. Some dyers find it hard to get a white, so they’re using chlorine-based bleaches to whiten the base, inconsistency of dye uptake makes it hard to get good batch-to-batch colour consistency and this can lead to high levels of re-dyeing, which requires high water, energy and chemical use.

3. Recycled polyester releases microplastics - Last but not least, some counter argue the affirmation that recycled polyester keeps plastic from ending in the oceans. They still do a little, as man-made fabrics can release microscopic plastic fibres - the infamous microplastics. According to a study by a team from Plymouth University, in the UK, each cycle of a washing machine could release more than 700,000 plastic fibres into the environment. To help prevent microplastic pollution when washing items you can place them in a filter washing bag to prevent shedding during the wash.

A final note

Many brands are strengthening their recycled material ambitions. A great example of this is H&M Group, who are collaborating with other players in the industry, such as Syre, to achieve this. Their aim is to scale textile-to-textile recycled polyester. 

The Accelerating Circularity initiative has also recently launched its rPolyester Database of commercially available textile-to-textile recycled polyester. 

As with most sustainable materials, there are both positives and negatives but going down a sustainable route will help reduce the impact fashion is having on the environment.

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