Should you really stop buying recycled polyester clothing? What, Why, and How of Synthetic Materials

Today we are in the middle of a massive debate regarding how good or bad recycled synthetic (polyester, nylon, spandex, etc) materials are and we wanted to share some facts about both- Recycled and Virgin. These are the materials that go into your yoga pants, tights, and our occasionwear too.

Many digital influencers are claiming that we should move away from recycled synthetic materials because of the microfibers they shed during washing. However, should we really stop buying recycled polyester clothing? In this post we will be connecting many systems, so please read carefully and fully.

First, We’d like to complete the picture for you with these honest facts:

  1. Virgin synthetic materials (Polyester, nylon, acrylic, etc) are made from Crude oil or petroleum.
  2. Recycled Synthetic (Polyester, Nylon, etc) are made from discarded plastic bottles, fishing nets, old clothing, etc. The originating source for plastic bottles, fishing nets is Crude Oil.

The important difference lies in how and how much they impact our planet. Below is the lifecycle of plastics:

  1. Crude oil or petroleum is used to make any and all virgin plastic products as well as synthetic fabrics.
  2. When the plastic products are discarded irresponsibly (most is) they eventually end up in landfills & oceans.
  3. All plastic products will eventually degrade into microplastics & microfibers over the course of 1000 years in the oceans or landfills. Where ever they are dumped.

Let’s look at the science & economics behind synthetic materials before we dive into conclusions.

Why and How Synthetic Materials began to be used in the Fashion Industry? 

Synthetic materials such as polyester, nylon, acrylic, spandex have been used in the fashion industry for decades. They appealed to the manufacturers as simpler and cheaper than the natural alternatives and the consumers were simply sold on features such as water repellency, wrinkle-free, durability, etc. In short, synthetic materials were easy to maintain for both the producers and the consumers. However, the dark cloud surrounding all the sparkly goodness was simply its impact on the environment such as being nonbiodegradable, clogging up landfills, and shedding microfibers in oceans.

In a short timeline, to give you an idea about how long we have been investing and researching into synthetics. In 1800s the first synthetic material ‘Rayon (not crude based)’ was created along with the accidental discovery of PVC. Synthetic fabrics like nylon(1935), spandex(1959), and polyester(1941) were invented and introduced to the market.

Whereas first recycled polyester fabric was made in 1990s.

How is Polyester made?

The main ingredient used in making Polyester is ethylene which is derived from crude oil or petroleum. The making of polyester includes various steps such as: Polymerisation, drying, melt spinning, drawing the fibre & winding.

Step 1. Converting Crude Oil to Polyester Chips. Source: Textile Exchange
Step 2. Converting polyester chips into Polyester yarns for making fabrics. Source: Textile Exchange

What are Recycled Synthetics?

Recycled Synthetics are made from pre or post-consumer waste. Pre-consumer synthetics may include waste from the spinning of yarn or cutting of garments. Post-consumer waste includes plastic bottles, fishing nets as well as used clothing.

Recycled Polyester Process. Source: The Sustainable Fashion Collective

Is Polyester Toxic and Carcinogenic?

Pure Polyethylene terephthalate(PET) is not toxic at all. When it’s blended with other compounds, scoured, dyed, and finished is when it starts accumulating chemicals that can be harmful to the mill or garment operators. But that’s true for all fabrics – organic silk could be harmful after it goes through the entire supply chain. Neither is recycled polyester toxic, provided the PET bottles used are uncontaminated.

Virgin Polyester Vs Recycled Polyester

The total carbon footprint of virgin polyester is 1154.15 kgCO2/100 kg, approximately ten times that of recycled polyester textiles production which is 119.59 kgCO2/100 kg. As for the water footprint, virgin polyester fabric production and recycled polyester fabric production both have a great impact on water eutrophication and water scarcity. The water scarcity footprint of virgin polyester fabric production and recycled polyester fabric production are 5.98 m3 H2Oeq/100 kg and 1.90 m3 H2Oeq/100 kg, respectively

Why are Recycled Synthetic material good?

  • Recycling synthetic fabrics used 30-35% less energy and generate about 79% less carbon emission as compared to virgin synthetic materials.
  • Reduces the demand for fossil fuel extraction and primary chemical production of virgin synthetics, thus saving energy. 
  • Gives new life to synthetic fibers as rPET(recycled Polyester), ECONYL® (recycled Nylon), Spanflex (recycled Spandex)
  • Diverting bottles and other plastics from landfills

How Sustainable is Recycled Polyester?

  • Clothes made of 100% polyester can be recycled in two ways: mechanically and chemically. The mechanical way includes washing plastic bottles, shredding them, turning them back to polyester chips followed by the traditional fiber-making process. Chemical recycling is taking a waste plastic product and returning it to its original monomers which then go back to the basic polyester manufacturing system, the process is known as Chemical Glycolysis.
  • It is more difficult to recycle clothes that are polyester blends. In the case of some blends like polyester-cotton, it is still possible to recycle, but the process has its limitations for the other kinds of blends.

Our Final Thoughts and Conclusions – Is it worth buying clothing made from recycled synthetics?

Our honest opinion is Yes! It is worth buying clothing made from 100% RECYCLED synthetic materials only (not even blends). The reason being, at the moment Recycling is the best solution of getting rid of existing plastic pollution which industries and consumers have been creating since 1907, and there is a lot of it which is not going anywhere for another 1000 years. Plastic problem is not created by our generations, but the responsibility of our generation to solve

With or without buying recycled synthetic clothing and worrying about microfiber, all plastic out there will eventually degrade into microplastics, nanoplastics and microfibers. So our best bet is to bring discarded plastic into circular closed-loop processes and continue recycling it until we have better solution.

And no! incinerating (burning) plastic is not the right answer as it releases toxic chemical Dioxins, Furans, Mercury and Polychlorinated Biphenyls into the atmosphere.

What should you be exactly saying no to?

Virgin Plastic products! By Stopping buying virgin plastic products you eliminate the problem from the source, thus creating no more plastic to recycle.


Written by Shivani Sneha. Edited by Karishma Gupta

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Sources:

  1. Ecocult.(2021). Why, Exactly, Is Polyester So Bad For The Environment?[online] Ecocult. Available at: https://ecocult.com/exactly-polyester-bad-environment/ [Accessed 13 May 2021].
  2. Fashion United.(2018). How Sustainable is Recycled Polyester[online] Fashion United. Available at: https://fashionunited.uk/news/fashion/how-sustainable-is-recycled-polyester/2018111540000[Accessed 13 May 2021].
  3. Qian, W. et al. (2021) ‘Carbon footprint and water footprint assessment of virgin and recycled polyester textiles’, Textile Research Journal. doi: 10.1177/00405175211006213.
  4. Textile Exchange.(2021).Learning Center/Recycled Polyester[online] Textile Exchange. Available at: https://textileexchange.org/learning-center/preferred-recycled-synthetics/[Accessed 13 May 2021].
  5. United Nations Climate Change.(2021).New Reports Sets Out How Fashion Industry Can Transition to Low Carbon Cotton and Polyester[online]United Nations Climate Change. Available at: https://unfccc.int/news/new-report-sets-out-how-fashion-industry-can-transition-to-low-carbon-cotton-and-polyester[Accessed 13 May 2021].
  6. United Nations Climate Change.(2021).Identifying Low Carbon Sources of Cotton and Polyester Fibres[PDF]United Nations Climate Change. Available at: https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/UCC_Cotton_Pet_report.pdf[Accessed 13 May 2021].
  7. Zerrin.(2021).Can recycled synthetic fabrics solve fashion’s waste problem?[online] Zerrin. Available at: https://zerrin.com/can-recycled-synthetic-fabrics-solve-fashions-waste-problem/[Accessed 13 May 2021].
  8. Chad Twombly (2016) The History of Synthetic Fabrics [Online] https://www.herculite.com/blog/the-history-of-synthetic-fabrics [Accessed 13 May 2021].
  9. Rinku Verma, K.S.Vinoda, M.Papireddy, A.N.S.Gowda (2016) Toxic Pollutants from Plastic Waste- A Review [Online] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S187802961630158X#:~:text=Incineration%20of%20plastic%20waste%20in,Polychlorinated%20Biphenyls%20into%20the%20atmosphere. [Accessed 13 May 2021].

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