What is polyester made of--and how bad is it for the environment?

It's #plasticfreejuly, but plastic is everywhere: packaging, containers, furniture and even our clothes. Polyester is a form of plastic that is pervasive in fashion. Learn ways to reduce your polyester intake.

You’ve probably noticed that most of your clothes contain some polyester. It’s the most widespread fiber in the clothing industry--about 25 billion tons of it are produced each year. 

Sure, it has perks. Polyester doesn’t wrinkle much, and it dries quickly. But it also creates serious environmental impacts worth thinking about when you shop. 

Consider rethinking your style and shopping for natural fibers or second hand clothing this #plasticfreejuly (and always!)   

What is polyester made of?

What is polyester made of? 

Polyester is a kind of plastic made from petroleum. In terms of the science, it’s a super-strong polymer made of a mixture of ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid. Polyester has a lot in common with plastic soda bottles made of PET. 

If you want to get really creepy, it helps to remember that petroleum itself is the ancient pressurized result of rotting biomass--mostly algae and plankton--from millions of years ago. 

How is polyester made? 

A material’s life-cycle starts with manufacturing. It helps to look at how much pollution it creates and how much resources it requires to create. In the case of polyester, here are some quick facts: 

  • It requires 2x the energy needed to create cotton.
  • Its dyes are toxic and in areas without strong environmental protections, the excess chemicals get released directly into natural waterways where it kills plants and wildlife. 
  • Polyester takes less water to make than natural fibers, but it does require lots of water for cooling.


How is polyester made?

How long does it take polyester to decompose? 

Next, let’s look at the end of the life cycle. It can take polyester about 20 to 700 years to break down, but it doesn’t actually biodegrade. It fragments into smaller and smaller pieces that linger in the environment, due to its incredibly strong molecular bonds. 

Scientists have discovered a few organisms that can break down plastic, but far too slowly compared to how fast it is produced. The vast majority of polyester and other plastic just clutters the environment whether it sits in landfills, breaks down into microplastics or floats in the ocean. 

A note on plastic microfiber pollution

You may have heard that synthetic microfibers are now found in most table salt, drinking water and even remote locations like Antarctica. Even though scientists know we’re eating and drinking microplastics, they don’t know the impacts on our bodies or on nature. 

We do know, however, that many of these synthetic microfibers shed from clothing: 1,900 fibers of plastic can be rinsed off a single garment (in a single wash). 


Can polyester be recycled? 

A fraction of polyester can be recycled, but most of it is “downcycled,” meaning it is reused for materials of lower value like insulation. After that, insulation cannot be recycled, so it ultimately ends up in the trash. 

What about recycled polyester? 

When you buy recycled polyester, you are buying a material created from recycled PET bottles. It is not material created from other clothing. While this is better than buying a new polyester item, it is still not ideal. 


plastic microfiber pollution

How to reduce microplastics in the wash

You can reduce microplastics by washing your clothing less. After that, you can also use microplastic filtering garment bags like Guppy Friend to reduce the plastic fibers that shed in the wash. 

All more reasons to shop second-hand

Don’t forget that shopping for second-hand clothing is clearly a great alternative to pumping more plastic into the environment.

If you wear a piece of clothing three more months before throwing it away, you can already reduce its environmental impact by 5-10%. This means less carbon emitted, less water wasted and less plastic in the environment.

Thrift, pre-loved and second hand are always great eco-friendly options!  


Article written by Erica Eller




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