THE IMPACT OF POLYESTER // how we ended up dressing in plastic

The history of polyester

Polyester is created through the reaction between an acid and alcohol. This synthetic fibre is derived from petroleum, from crude oil, also known as fossil fuels. But while polyester wasn’t widespread until the 1960s the development of the fabric already began during the 1930s. During this time you can find a lot of information about the different patents for polymers, plastics and synthetic fibres, like polyester, nylon and other materials that would later gain popularity. There was a lot of buying patents and rights back and forth up until the 1950s. These materials were obviously not exclusively developed for clothing, but have had multiple applications in everything from the medical industry to film, art, construction, and automobile industry and so many other products and industries.

When polyester clothing hit the market around the mid-50s the fabric was marketed as a textile of science. In comparison to organic fibres like cotton, silk, wool and leather, these new synthetic fabrics were created in labs to fit the needs of the consumers, as such they gained massive popularity during the 60s. Polyester was advertised to housewives as a low-maintenance textile that didn’t need ironing and that didn’t wrinkle after the wash which was really attractive to homemakers.

However, during the following decade, polyester clothing gained a bad reputation for being uncomfortable to wear, especially since the younger generation wasn’t buying into the hype of polyester as much as the industry would have preferred. In the 80’s polyester manufacturers tried to turn that around. Great houses of fashion like Calvin Klein and Oscar De La Renta created collections using polyester, and polyester blends, and this changed the perception of the fabric for many consumers, and the popularity increased once again… and it never really slowed down.

Also check out: so did we screw up the planet? // IPCC report recap

Today’s polyester production

Today polyester is the most widely used type of textile, during the beginning of the new millennia, it exceeded cotton in production volume and now polyester represents 57.5% of the global production of textiles.

So polyester, along with other synthetics, is made from crude oil, this is an issue in and of itself. The impact of extracting oil from the environment, and the burning of said oil is the leading course of climate change, hands down. And we are currently not slowing down. It is estimated that we will reach peak extraction by 2030 and if we continue our current consumption we will have depleted this resource completely by 2060.

Also check out: so did we screw up the planet? // IPCC report recap

Producing plastic-based fibres for textiles is estimated to use 342 million barrels of oil every year. Polyester is made via a few different techniques, the two most common are called filament and staple, I won’t bore you with the details on how it is made, but basically, you utilise a chemical reaction where you form plastic pellets, melt them and spin them into yarn (this was a very, very superficial explanation). One thing that is worth noting though is that it is basically impossible to trace the supply chain of polyester beyond the yarn production. So finding out if the raw materials, aka the crude oil, came from Canada, Iran, Saudi Arabia, China or the US is not going to happen. Forget about it. It is possible to see a bit more transparency in the supply chain of recycled polyester or bio-poly, but the virgin material has very opaque supply chains, where details about the extraction of the raw material are deliberately kept invisible to the consumer.

And because polyester is, partially, made from petroleum, the fabrics don’t really biodegrade. So these cheap trendy clothes we’re buying, but probably won’t wear next year can easily still be around, 200 years from now.

But it’s not only the fabrics that’ll hang around for a while, the dyes used to colour the polyester, also called disperse dyes, cannot be dissolved in water, because they are based on the same complex molecular structures as the fabric itself. So the wastewater from textile factories, that is just straight up flushes right out into local water supplies, will always be there, those pollutants will never go away, and the workers handling the toxic dyes report higher incidences of cancers and lung disease than average.

In 1975, approximately 24 million metric tons of textile fibres were produced worldwide. By 2021, that number was more than 4 times as large, surpassing 113 million metric tons. With the rapid expansion of the fast fashion industry, the production of polyester has increased with it, and there is a good reason for that.

Also check out: so did we screw up the planet? // IPCC report recap

Polyester is often more affordable and easier to depend on for a steady supply, because the production of polyester, in contrast to cotton, which is the second most frequently used fabric, isn’t affected by the same factors in its supply chain as cotton. Cotton needs to be grown, and harvested, and such production is affected by everything from droughts, and natural disasters to political conflicts. Polyester has a shorter supply chain, because it’s produced synthetically, and it’s cheaper, at least that’s often the case.

This is the main reason why so many brands are opting for polyester or poly-blends. And you can actually see how the global production of clothing spiked because of the widespread availability of this dependable fibre.

Between 2000 and 2014 global clothing production doubled, and it was just around 2002 that polyester surpassed cotton in global production, which paved the way for the massive overproduction of the cheap “disposable” clothing we’re seeing today. Today, about 100 billion pieces of clothes are produced worldwide, and it is not unfair to credit the massive, and destructive, rise of the fast fashion industry to the widespread use and availability of polyester, thank you polyester.

We could also talk about the fact that the fast fashion industry flooded small economies with their cheap clothes and ruined long lines of crafts and traditions, completely like the fast food, and soft drink industry did to food cultures. But this is a whole other video.

(just quickly adding here that not all polyester is created equal, there are huge quality differences depending on how much is being invested in the fabric. Polyester both used for shitty dropship clothing, but you can also find high-quality athletics wear, and there are miles between the qualities of those fabrics)

Also check out: REVIEWING THE MOST UNSUSTAINABLE FABRICS // which fabrics are the worst, and why

Microplastics

So whenever we wash, and wear, synthetic fabrics, the fabrics shred microplastic. I have a whole separate analysis of microplastic, so if you want more information you can check that out. But here is the gist:

Microplastic is basically impossible to filter through water management systems, so whatever microplastic we flush down our drains from our laundry, our beauty routine, and or showers, ends up in the ocean. Microplastic can be divided into primary and secondary categories. Primary microplastic is directly released into the environment as small particles, and this type of microplastic is estimated to represent between 15-31% of all microplastic in the ocean, on average.

The main source of primary microplastic is derived from the washing and wearing of synthetic clothes, checking in at 35%, abrasion of tyres from driving accounts for 28%, while microbeads from beauty products only account for 2% (there are also several laws in place that ban these products many places, which is why this percentage is so low today)

Also check out: the impact of microplastic and how to avoid it

Secondary microplastics originate from the degradation of larger plastic objects that are already polluting, think The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. So bigger pieces of plastic, such as post-consumer waste, and more importantly fishing nets (which is by far the biggest source of microplastic) are worn down in the environment and thus end up as secondary microplastic, which accounts for 69-81% of all microplastics.

According to the UN, there are approximately 51 trillion microplastic particles in our oceans today, which is 500 times more than stars in our galaxy… And humans aren’t separated from the environment, so whatever nature gets, we get. Plastic particles have been found throughout food chains, in our tap water, in beer, in honey and in food. Microplastic has been found in humans all across the globe, and even in embryos. We are in contact with plastic even before we’re born.

But are microplastics dangerous? We still lack a lot of information about how microplastics are affecting our bodies, however, just like we’re seeing in the environment when we’re exposing ourselves to tons of different chemical components, they’ll bio-accumulate in our bodies, and in nature, and potentially react in unforeseeable ways. Plastics also often have added ingredients such as additives and flame-retardants, which also cause health concerns, but again, we have a very limited understanding of the long-term effects.

Also check out: The Impact of Bamboo Clothing // is it really sustainable?

But how does it hold up to cotton?

I think it is important to note that the world wouldn’t be better off if all the polyester today was replaced with a demand for more organic materials like cotton. Actually, that would only make the impact so much worse. Just like replacing all plastic with bio-plastic won’t fix global pollution, or all paper disposables with glass or stainless steel won’t magically lower emissions, on the contrary, actually.

So polyester is more affordable than cotton, okay. Btw if you’re interested in the impact of cotton I go into way more detail in this video: https://youtu.be/vyWlguh8-mI

LCA studies actually find that polyester requires fewer resources to produce than cotton, however as this study also specifies, yarn thickness is a primary factor when making this determination. Cotton requires more water and more land to grow, it also requires pesticides and insecticides, and the impact of cotton’s much longer value chain results in more resources being used and a more widespread impact. However, when looking at emissions and energy-use polyester often requires more.

Also check out: THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT OF COTTON 

  • The estimated CO2 emissions from polyester are approximately 10.2 kg CO2 per 1 kg for polyester, and it’s 9.3 for cotton.
  • The energy used for polyester is 184 MJ per kg of polyester and 98 MJ per kg of cotton
  • However when looking at water usage, 1 kg of polyester requires 2.9 m³ water, meanwhile, 1 kg of cotton requires 124 m³ (1 m³ is 1000 litres of water, or 264 gallons if that helps)

As such virgin polyester and conventional cotton are unsustainable, but for two different reasons, the best alternatives would be recycled polyester and organic, or recycled cotton.

The main issue, and the main reason for the high impact of the textile industry is not so much which type of fabric is being used, it is more so the fact that there is no way of producing 100 billion pieces of clothes in a low impact, low emissions, regenerative, sustainable way. Overproduction and overconsumption of anything will always be unsustainable and destructive, and as such the textile industry needs to be held accountable for their impact, which includes but isn’t limited to:

  • Depleting the environment of resources
  • Underpaying and exploiting workers
  • Outsourcing production to exploit countries with less strict environmental regulations
  • Burning clothes that isn’t sold
  • Dumping toxic wastewater in local water supplies
  • Nudging consumers to buy more by constantly introducing new seasons and trends
  • Making clothes unrepairable encourages replacing rather than repairing
  • Creating return schemes that are just scams
  • Throwing away clothes that are returned by online shoppers
  • Misleading consumers with vague greenwashing
  • And lobbying against transparency legislation
  • Oh and overall just being really uncool

Also check out: FAST FASHION & SWEATSHOPS // Isn’t a poorly paid job better than no job? 

What is the most sustainable way to wear polyester?

First of all, this isn’t all on the consumer, there are several steps brands and designers can take that reduce the shredding of microplastic from the clothes they sell – like brushing the material, using laser and ultrasound cutting, using coating and pre-washing. They can also consider the length of the yarn, the type of weave, and the finishing seams, all of these factors affect how much microplastic will be released from the clothing. On a bigger scale, they can ensure that the fabric is durable, so it doesn’t end up in a landfill right away, and implement systems of recycling and circularity, actually, this shouldn’t be optional, but I digress.

However, today, it is optional, and far too many companies do absolutely nothing, so here are some things you can do to be more mindful of your polyester clothing:

Also check out: CARBON OFFSETS // does it work (the impact of ‘plant a tree’ campaigns)

  • Install a particle filter in your washing machine
  • Wash your polyester as little as possible, you can often simply air your clothes out overnight, or put them in the freezer.
  • Don’t buy polyester items that need frequent washing
  • Base your purchases on quality, and stop buying shitty fast fashion clothes, but buy better and less
  • Choose textiles that are 100% recycled, or more low impact like linen, hemp, or Tencel
  • Buy pre-loved, then you’re not supporting the continuous production of more clothes
  • Don’t buy things you don’t need, seems obvious, but I have to say it
  • If you want more information on this I really recommend watching both River Blue, as well as The True Cost, both amazing documentaries, if you want to dive deeper.

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