PET. Whenever we hear this word most of us probably think of plastic bottles and the dangers of plastic not only for our bodies but also the environment. So why is it important in fashion? We’re not wearing bottles are we? Well, we kind of are. Sometimes for better or for worse. Why? That’s what we want to talk about.
Polyethylene terephthalate, short PET, is the predominant polyester that is also used for fibre production. It’s cheap and easy to physically and chemically modify. It’s the bad boy of the fashion industry. Everyone wants it. Actually, over 50% of the global fibre production is made of polyester. Think about it, your yoga pants, most of your sportswear, even that cute shirt or teddy jacket you own. It’s an incredibly durable, lightweight and breathable material. The number of used polyester has been on the rise for years as the fast fashion industry has become more predominant in today’s society.
Now you may ask, how does PET actually get sourced and where does it come from?
Polyester is usually derived from oil. Yes, oil. Dinosaurs, basically. Just kidding. Kind of. If you just had an aha-moment, welcome to the club!
To be more specific, though, polyester is made from petrochemicals that are a by-product from petroleum. Small chemistry lesson: That by-product is mixed with alcohol and carbocyl acid to form an ester. That’s where it gets its name from. The chemical reaction is called polymerization. Polyester then gets melted into filament or staple fibres. The thread is made by using a spinning process and there are many different chemical sourcing and manufacturing methods.
With polyester being a fossil-fueled and chemically produced fibre come many environmental challenges, as well as socio economic challenges. Polyester is highly associated with climate change, its production pollutes the environment and air and its microfibers pollute our oceans and water and therefore also harm wildlife.
But, what exactly is microplastic?
Microplastic particles are small pieces of larger synthetic textiles such as clothing that are being shed with each wash cycle. Did you know that one fleece jacket sheds up to one million fibres in just one wash cycle? Each year our washing machines release up to 30,000 tonnes of microplastic fibres into water – just alone in the European Union! 30,000 tonnes? Imagine the weight of a car. Now multiply that by 10,000. That’s a lot of weight isn’t it?
While some special wastewater treatment plants can filter the tiny synthetic fibres depending on the technology that was used to produce the fibres in the first place there is no denying that the waste ending up in oceans is dangerous for our ecosystem. After all polyester is a synthetic fibre and therefore not biodegradable, meaning that microplastic fibres that get released into the oceans will only turn into smaller pieces but remain there for a very long time. How long you are wondering? It takes up to 500 years or more for plastic to fully break down. Let that sink in.. (or actually, please don’t).
What about recycled polyester?
Another option that has recently been presented and used by many clothing companies is recycled polyester, short rPET. On the bright side, rPET is usually made from bottles and plastic containers that would otherwise often end up in landfills. Additionally, the quality of rPET can be almost as good as virgin PET but it takes less resources to be recycled and mixed with new fibres.
The organization Textile Exchange even created a commitment to encourage brands all over the world to try to accelerate their use of rPET by 25% by 2020 back in 2017. The set goal of 25% would have diverted almost 2.9 million bottles from landfills and reduced 35 thousand kilograms in human toxicity while saving 1,849,464 MJ on primary energy demand and reducing 122,823 kilograms of carbon dioxide. These numbers might be a little confusing at first, but they are really important and show the big impact many smaller shifts can have. Many major brands and retailers have been supporting this commitment and reached the goal just a year later in 2018. Pretty good, huh? This means we could save many more resources in the future and help our planet if we all worked togehter by producing and consuming more recycled polyester, right?
While this is a great start to changing the fast fashion industry, many argue that the use of rPET is still problematic as it is still not biodegradable, meaning that microplastic fibres get into our oceans nonetheless. PET supposedly even leaks a cancer causing chemical called antimony oxide. However, health agencies and organisations argue that the amount in our clothing isn’t toxic for us, so luckily we’re kind of good on that one.
At the end of the day, even recycling has its limits unfortunately. For example, it is almost impossible to recycle polyester from garments that have mixed fibres in them. While it is possible and easier with pieces of clothing that have been made of polyester and cotton the process is generally still difficult. Garments that have been fully made from polyester can be recycled a few times but not forever as the quality fades. Where does the plastic go after recycling isn’t an option anymore since the textile isn’t compostable? You got it, landfills and our oceans. It’s a tricky situation.
So, wait a second – we’re always told how great and crucial recycling is, but now even recycling isn’t good? Don’t worry, that’s not the case even if it may sound like it. While rPET is still not the perfect solution it is a huge step and a neccessary start into relieving some pressure of our beautiful environment.
So what can we do?
The only thing we as consumers can really do is buy less pieces of clothing made from polyester. Yes, our favorite yoga pants, our favorite sports bra or dress may be made from polyester and that’s ok. Let’s just try and be smart about it. We can all try to shop more consciously and only buy what we really need. No, we don’t need the 5th pair of yoga pants, really, we don’t. Further, let’s stick to buying recycled polyester or even better no polyester at all. Changes might be hard at first but small baby steps can do the trick.
Wondering what to do about the polyester clothing you already have hanging around in your closet?
First of all, the basics: wash on low temperature, use eco-friendly detergents, say no to softeners (it’s about time!) and air dry your polyester pieces. Most washing machines are currently not able to filter the microplastic fibres so they don’t get released into the water. Luckily, there are special washing bags and balls you can purchase that act as a filter. Guppy Friend, for example, is a special washing bag that catches the tiny bad guys that could – like the name of the brand indicates – harm any guppies and other innocent ocean creatures. Just put your polyester garments in the bag and follow the directions as stated on the bag or your clothing. There are also some other alternatives like actual filters for washing machines that can be added or new wasching machines that already have a built in filter. However, the quickest and likely the cheapest solution before washing machine producers catch on washing bags.
Don’t forget to celebrate your small steps because those small steps will already have an impact on the world.