Most of our clothes nowadays are made from synthetic materials such as polyester, acrylic or nylon. While this option has been favored by fast fashion manufacturers due to the low cost, their origin is highly problematic. That is because synthetic fabric (except for a few exceptions such as lyocell) is plastic, made from crude oil, weaved into fibers. Therefore, it is contributing to plastic pollution and anytime washed, it releases microscopic plastic fibers into the water cycle.
However, there is one case where synthetic fabric redeems itself and that is in the case of recycled polyester. While there is some debate in the sustainability community over recycled polyester, it has many undeniable benefits that help make it a sustainable material worth trying.
How is recycled polyester made?
Polyester is made from the most common plastic in the world - PET. You will find it in plastic bottles, a wide array of food packaging… and your wardrobe. When new polyester is produced, this PET is created from crude oil and has a substantial negative impact on the environment. However, in the case of recycled polyester, existing plastic waste is used to create synthetic fabric, eliminating the need for extracting more crude oil and transforming it into plastic.
The recycled material has the same properties as a garment made from new polyester – the good (such as its stretchy nature) and the bad (including the release of micro-plastics whenever the garment is washed). Let us address the latter before we continue discussing the benefits of the fabric. The release of micro-plastics is certainly a concern when it comes to recycled polyester. However, we need to keep in mind that the waste recycled polyester is made from would be releasing these particles too if left in a landfill or the ocean (that is where most of our plastic goes nowadays) – and this way, the material can still serve a purpose while doing that.
The benefits of recycled polyester
Now that we have discussed the issue of micro-plastics, let’s focus on how recycled polyester helps you live a more sustainable life. Firstly, as we hinted on before, it is a way to keep waste which already exists in the world from landfills and the ocean. Since 8 million metric tons of plastic enter our oceans every single year, we must work to limit this number as much as we can.
The resulting fabric made from repurposed PET is just as good as virgin polyester – it has the same properties which make it such a popular material for athleticsure and workout apparel. However, its environmental impact is much lower than that of virgin polyester. So why would we ever produce new polyester again? An overwhelming 60% of PET produced nowadays goes towards making synthetic fabric – but all of this could be made from recycled plastic to drastically reduce the impact of creating new garments.
Lastly, what needs to be mentioned is that plastic recycling is an imperfect system with many faults. Yes, it can help transform what would be waste into something new, but it should not be used as a reason to keep making more new plastic. The assumption that ‘we can use plastic because we can always just recycle’ it is incorrect because of the many faults in the process of recycling plastic. Plastic recycling and the use of recycled polyester is a great way to repurpose the piles of existing waste we are dealing with. However, it should not distract from the fact that we need to limit our consumption of new plastic drastically if we hope to tackle plastic pollution.