Recycled polyester may not be as sustainable as it seems

Although the fabric is considerably better for the planet than its virgin counterpart, it still generates fibrous micro-plastics which persist in the environment and never degrade.

Green or greenwashing? This is the question environmentalists have begun asking with regards to recycled polyester (rPET), the man-made fabric with an obviously smaller carbon footprint than its virgin counterpart, but one that’s still far from sustainable.

Currently, polyester accounts for more than 55% of all fibres used in the textile and apparel industry, a figure that Greenpeace predicts will increase dramatically by 2030. It’s a material used liberally within the realm of athleisure, due to the ever-growing number of consumers seeking stretchier, more resistant clothing – particularly during a period of lockdown in which we could either work out or wind down.

Of course, a significant issue lies in the fact that polyester is typically derived from petroleum-based ingredients, which isn’t biodegradable and puts huge pressure on dwindling finite resources. But does recycling it solve the problem or simply contribute further to the climate crisis?

How sustainable is recycled polyester?

In 2017, non-profit organisation Textile Exchange challenged over 50 renowned companies (from H&M and Gap to IKEA and Adidas) to up their use of rPET by 25% before 2020. An irrefutable success, those involved were not only able to meet the goal two years prior to the deadline but exceeded the target percentage by 11%. Encouraging others to follow suit, the initiative now has close to one hundred major brands under its belt, a feat that led the non-profit to forecast 20% of all polyester to be recycled within the next decade.

‘Taking plastic waste and turning it into a useful material is very important for humans and our environment,’ says Karla Magruder, board member of Textile Exchange. ‘If you look at life cycle assessments, rPET scores significantly better than virgin PET.’ This is because it’s almost equivalent in terms of quality, but its production requires 59% less energy.

Additionally, recycled polyester curbs discards, reduces toxic emissions from incinerators, and eliminates the need to extract natural gas and crude oil, thereby lessening the industry’s inherent dependence on fossil fuels to manufacture staple fabrics.

The appeal is evident, but while recycling polyester sounds like an indisputably good idea and a guilt-free way to consume fashion, there’s no way around it: rPET will eventually end up on a landfill site and stay there for the 700 years it takes to break down. Not to mention that it still generates microfibres and, as conscious consumers, it’s important we be aware of how detrimental this can be for the planet.

According to a 2018 study from Plymouth University, each machine cycle has the potential to release 700,000 fibrous microplastics into the environment. ‘It doesn’t stop at the manufacturing stage,’ says Mother of Pearl’s creative director Amy Powney. ‘Every time you wash a polyester garment it releases microfibres into our waterways causing immense damage to marine life and vital ecosystems.’

Essentially, natural or not, all textiles shed in the wash. Measuring less than five millimetres in length, what sloughs-off synthetic materials slips easily past sewage-plant filters, ultimately entering lakes, rivers, and oceans, and frequently mistaken as food by marine life.

Critics of rPET are also wary of the marketing-speak associated with the textile, calling the tendency to describe it as fashion’s ‘saviour’ tantamount to greenwashing, especially given that only a small portion of everything we throw away actually gets recycled. ‘rPET’s role in reducing the burden of ocean waste is completely oversold,’ says author of Junkyard Planet, Adam Minter. ‘Brands and shoppers alike should be encouraged to favour natural fibres instead.’

What Minter suggests is extremely viable, and the industry is certainly at fault of touting rPET as a silver-bullet solution to all its environmental wrongdoings. The answer, therefore? If fashion looked to fully circular fibre alternatives such as biosynthetics made from corn and other plant-based resources or recycled nylon, for example, it could quickly move away from petroleum entirely.

It definitely won’t happen overnight, but it’s high time the industry began acknowledging that we can no longer take from the earth without giving back. Or, you know, there’s always the world’s first carbon-neutral rPET resin which was unveiled this week, a revolutionary discovery that can be produced using green electricity.

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