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RECYCLED POLYESTER: ITS HISTORY AND BENEFITS

R4 CLOTHING LTD | July 2021 | 9 min read

SUMMARY:

Alongside cotton, polyester is the most produced fabric in the world. However, there has been a growing consensus over the large-scale negative environmental and health impacts of this synthetic chemical.To solve this, researchers and scientists have combined to come up with a greener and more sustainable alternative, namely recycled polyester.   

This story provides a brief introduction to the history of recycled polyester and how its textiles are produced before delving into its widespread benefits and the consequent inevitable growth in recycled polyester usage.

HISTORY

Unlike the other textiles discussed, polyester is a synthetic man-made fibre that was first constructed in a lab in the 1930’s by chemical corporation, DuPont. Since the 1960’s, polyester has become the world’s most popular fabric, partly for its functional properties. This includes but is not limited to; resistance to stretching and shrinking, easiness to clean, and how it is less prone to creasing. The most common form of polyester is polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which has achieved universal usage - from clothing to packaging. According to Textile Exchange (2018), its share of 52% of global fibre production showcases that it is one of the most widely used fibres in the world. Thus, the popularity of polyester is far from disappearing...

 

Is polyester bad for the environment?

Unlike natural fibres such as cotton, conventional polyester does not require land for cultivation and thus has become so ubiquitous in clothing as it requires less attention to nurture. Despite this, polyester has an overwhelmingly harmful impact on the environment and ecosystems involved in its production. Not only is creating polyester an energy and water intensive process, exacerbating the fashion industry’s impact on the planet, but it is also associated with the environmental risks from chemical spillage to biodiversity loss – the list is endless...

Polyester is also fuelling the plastic crisis. Washing polyester alone, means that plastic microfibers are released into water streams, rivers, and oceans. According to Lucy Siegle’s ‘Turning the Tide On Plastic’, for instance,

washing 6kg of clothes can result in over 137,951 fibres (for polyester-cotton clothes) being released as oceanic pollution.

The great thing about recycled polyester (rPET), therefore, is that it reinvents PET and introduces the world to the innovative possibilities of sustainable fabrics. It uses PET, like water bottles, as its raw material. And as a contemporary development, it is a great way to signal a new green direction, encouraging positive recycling behaviours and hope for the future.

HOW IS RECYCLED POLYESTER MADE?

To turn collected polyphenylene (PET) or virgin polyester into material, it is first grounded into flakes, and washed with detergents to remove any contaminants to be sterilised. After undertaking a process of depolymerization (chemical recycling), molten PET polymer is made into chips and spun into a fibre, to create a fluffy, woolly texture. It is eventually spun into yarn and balled ready for use. Whilst processes vary, and plastics can be collected locally, then sorted - notably by colour - many manufacturers aim to produce yarn as clear as possible to provide a neutral base for applying dye. Clothes commonly made from recycled polyester include sportswear, loungewear, and outdoor garments like puffer jackets.

Recycled Polyester Textile: Process

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ENVIRONMENTAL BENEFITS

DECREASE GHG EMISSIONS: Unfortunately, the industry is predicted to be using 26% of the world’s carbon budget by 2050, so attempts should be made to move away from resource heavy materials like polyester. Fortunately, a 2017 life-cycle analysis found that manufacturing rPET generates 79% less Carbon emissions than producing its virgin counterpart.

PREVENT PLASTIC LANDFILL BUILD- UP:

Recycled polyester helps to reduce the seismic waste in the fashion industry that sees over 48 million mt. of clothes disposed annually. By processing virgin polyester, a textile that can be continuously recycled without quality/ environmental degradation, it diverts used plastic from landfills/Oceans. For instance, 1 kg of RPET (made with 100% post-consumer waste) can keep 60 water bottles out of landfill.

LESS RELIANT ON FOSSIL FUELS: By replacing virgin polyester as the main source with a recycled alternative, instantly reduces dependency on fossil fuels. This development will have a positive impact on energy requirements in the future as it has a smaller carbon footprint than virgin polyester. So, using recycled polyester may help brands/ governments meet their climate targets and contribute to the 2015 Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals...

ECONOMIC BENEFITS

NEW DEMAND = NEW POTENTIAL MARKET: There is a huge demand for recycled fabrics internationally, especially in Europe because of its Eco-friendly and good on skin properties.

 

CREATES A CIRCULAR ECONOMY: A Circular Economy (CE) originates from Walter Stahel’s 1976 report ‘The potential for substituting manpower for energy’ and presents the idea of an ‘economy in loops. It creates a positive impact by increasing jobs, economic competitiveness, reduced dependency on natural resources and the prevention of waste - these are costly factors that businesses/ governments must consider. A circular economy approach in fashion aims to develop a more sustainable

system whereby the garments have extended use, whilst also maintaining the value of the products and materials for as long as possible.

 

CREATES NEW JOBS/ INCREASES EMPLOYMENT: “By rethinking the way we produce, work and buy, we can generate new opportunities and create new jobs”, has been stated in the EU’s Circular Economy Package (EU 2 .12 .2015). Many of the activities within the circular economy are labour-intensive and can create new boosts in the micro- and macro-levels of the economy. Indeed, it is predicted by Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) that change towards circularity could generate up to 3 million new jobs in the EU by 2030...