Into The Fiber: How Sustainable Is Recycled Polyester?

Into The Fiber: How Sustainable Is Recycled Polyester?

We’ve all seen the advertisement claiming a jacket is produced using 5 recycled plastic bottles. The sustainable fashion world seems to be in love with recycled polyester (rPET) fiber. Made from recycled plastic bottles, brands like Patagonia’s love showing off its eco-friendliness.

But does just using recycled plastic make recycled polyester sustainable?

The Bad: Recycled Polyester Production Process

Recycled polyester (rPET) is produced by melting down existing plastic and re-spinning it into new polyester fiber. Although your pants are made from 5 plastic bottles, the process to make your pants also

1)Leaks tons of microplastics into water systems

2)Wastes water due to the inconsistency of rPET fibers

3) Wastes energy due to the inconsistency of rPET fibers

4)Are likely dyed with the same harmful chemicals used in most textile manufacturing

Even companies that use minimal toxic chemicals throughout their supply chain like Patagonia admit that all polyester release microplastics into the environment.

What most brands do not admit is that the rPET production process is incredibly wasteful of water and energy due to the yarn production process and brand color standards. If manufactured perfectly, the production process of rPET can use upwards of 50% less energy compared to virgin polyester. A statistic that brands love to market.

The untold truth is that the majority of yarn and textile factories do not process rPET fibers or fabric on the first pass.

 

In fact, only 20% of PET bottles result in usable yarn due to bottle design and contamination.

The usable yarn is woven into fabric, but due to standards, rPET fabrics are often processed multiple times. The wastefulness and reprocessing can negate the water-saving claims of rPET products and may even use more water to achieve a brand’s standard.

Looking Beyond The Fiber

It’s essential to look beyond the fibers and into the manufacturing process. A garment made from recycled polyester does not mean it was dyed or manufactured responsibly. For example, which would you rather:

A shirt that uses recycled polyester but made in a garment factory that exploits their workers

OR

The identical shirt made with conventional polyester but made in a garment factory that is Fair Trade Approved? 

Tough question right? The point is: Look beyond the fibers and learn its full sustainability story. 

The Good  

 Although the production process of rPET may be wasteful, there are still plenty of reasons why Recycled Polyester is a better alternative to conventional polyester. 

  1.  It’s still Recycling: At the end of the day, rPET keeps 5.9 tons of PET out of our oceans and landfills. 
  2. Uses Less Fossil Fuels: Polyester yarn production is highly dependent on petroleum, and the process releases the second most greenhouse gas emissions to nylon. Since the production of rPETr eliminates the need for polyester yarn extrusion, the process can reduce emissions by 32%.
  3. Polyester is Recyclable: Unlike natural fibers, polyester can be recycled and repurposed.

Should You Buy Recycled Polyester Products?  

Yes.

rPET is undoubtedly a better alternative when compared to virgin polyester. It may not be perfect, but its a step in the right direction.

 

Jon K.

Jon Kirsner, MBA, MSBA, is a supply chain professional with a decade of experience in sustainable manufacturing. His industry experience has exposed him to the truth of the sustainable fashion and consumer goods industries. He does not write as a journalist but as an industry expert and passionate advocate.

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