Polyester & Environment: Is Polyester Good for the Planet?
Our polyester & environment guide explores the environmental impact of polyester as a fabric
Polyester is one of the most widely used fabrics in the world. Polyester is the material that makes up most of our clothing today. If you have ever worn anything made from polyester chances are you love it because of the way it can make you look and feel.
While this material is widely used because it is cheap and fast to produce, polyester’s environmental impact is different.
Our article explores all about polyester is a man-made fabric and how it impacts our environment. Let us understand where polyester lies on our sustainability meter and if it is a fabric you should purchase.
What is Polyester?
Polyester is a synthetic fabric made from polyethylene terephthalate or PET. It’s used in many different kinds of clothing and other textiles and has been for decades.
Polyester is a man-made fabric that was first developed in the 1930s. It is an artificial fabric that uses petroleum as a raw material. Polyester has been in commercial use since 1941 for fibres (mainly in clothing), with its use becoming dominant after 1970 thanks to advances in spinning technologies.
Polyester is a synthetic polymer made from the reaction of dimethyl terephthalate and ethylene glycol. It is used in clothing, carpets and other fabrics. Polyester is used in clothing because it’s strong, flexible and lightweight. It’s also easy to dye and washable. You may have noticed that some of your favourite garments have a shiny appearance when you look at them closely — this comes from the smooth surface of polyester fibres creating a reflective effect known as “haze.”
Polyester & Environment: Should We Wear Polyester Fabric?
While polyester as a fabric is easy and cheap to produce, the making of polyester fabric comes at a great environmental cost. is polluting the environment and can pose health risks since it’s processed with carcinogenic chemicals.
As you know polyester is made from petroleum. Petroleum is a fossil fuel and hence a non-renewable resource. As a plastic-based material, polyester is non-biodegradable material and not easily recyclable. This means that over time, the amount of waste produced by polyester will continue to grow and grow until it becomes an enormous problem for our planet.
Polyester production harms our planet in many ways. For example, when they’re manufactured they produce large amounts of CO2 emissions which contribute to global warming. Their production also uses up fossil fuels (a limited resource).
The fibers from polyester break down into small particles that remain in the air (which is problematic for people with asthma) and they can be inhaled into the lungs where they cause inflammation. The fibres are also harmful to aquatic organisms like fish and frogs.
What Makes Polyester the Biggest Problem?
The fact that how cheap it is to manufacture. Ever since it’s commercial use, the use case for polyester is growing. It is not just used as a fabric but also as coatings for paper and packaging to improve printability, gloss, stiffness and barrier properties.
Within the fashion industry, polyester’s worth has grown manifold. As of 2018, polyester accounted for 52% of the global fibre production which is equivalent to 55 million metric tonnes. Cotton came in second.
Polyester has become a preferred fabric because of its affordability and ease of use. As a matter of fact, polyester has led to the overproduction of fashion.
Prior to the discovery of polyester in the 1940s, our textile industry took advantage of plantations and relied on fabrics like cotton and linen or raised sheep for wool and silkworms. Producing polyester inside a factory separated production from land use.
McKinsey’s analysis shows that worldwide clothing production more than doubled between 2000 and 2014. Interestingly, the worldwide textile market for polyester rose by 1.2 per cent in 2002. A large portion of this growth was attributed to polyester.
But isn’t Polyester Recyclable?
Yes, polyester is recyclable but only in theory. Our current technology does not fully support polyester recycling. Even if we are able to recycle the PET, it only degrades each cycle and cannot be recycled forever.
Then there is the concern of polyester blends. You see most of our clothing has a small percentage of polyester. In order to recycle this, you first need to separate out the polyester. This process means that even more toxic pollutants end up being released into the environment.
Polyester & Humans: Does the Fabric Harm our Health?
There is some controversy over whether polyester can be harmful to humans. Some say polyester is not a carcinogen, others say it is. If polyester is pure and virgin, it is not harmful. However, the process of blending it with other compounds, dyeing, scrubbing, and finishing causes the buildup of chemicals that can be harmful to your health, or the health of mill workers.
Since polyester is mostly available as a blend with other fabrics and materials, it can harm human health in a number of ways. Polyester can harm your respiratory system and cause lung problems or asthma if used excessively. Hence it is advised that polyester should not be in your bed or linen products to avoid inhalation or contact during sleep.
It may lead to skin infections or irritation. Polyester products also might present problems if it comes into contact with chemicals such as formaldehyde (which is contained in adhesives).
So What Can Replace Polyester?
The use of polyester fabric as a clothing material has increased dramatically in the past few decades. Although it is known as a sustainable fabric, it should be noted that the manufacture of this fabric causes pollution, which can have an adverse effect on the environment and human health.
But there are several fabrics available in the market that can easily replace polyester. These are sustainable alternatives that do not cause harm to the planet. Some of these fabrics include hemp, organic cotton, linen, and lyocell.
Sanjoli is currently working as a Content Strategist and has a Master’s degree in Fashion Journalism. She has contributed to publications like MensXP, Mindless Mag and Sustain: The Mag in the past. Conscious Charcha is her way of learning more about sustainability and spreading the word about a sustainable lifestyle.
FAQs about Polyester & Environment
Polyester is not a plastic, but it is made from plastic. It’s actually a fabric that’s often mistaken for being plastic. Polyester is made from petroleum- a fossil fuel whose production and consumption harm the planet.
No, polyester isn’t biodegradable. It takes too long for the material to break down in the environment and it may not break down completely or leave chemicals behind harming the soil or water bodies.
Polyester can not be recycled easily using today’s technology. Even if we do start collecting and recycling polyester, the PET degrades a little more during each loop. It can’t be recycled forever.