Recycled polyester has become a trendy material in the fashion industry as brands try to be more sustainable and environmentally friendly. However, not all recycled polyester is created equal, and some industry experts are skeptical about the benefits of using this material.
One of the biggest concerns surrounding recycled polyester is where it comes from. While many brands tout their use of recycled PET plastic water bottles, there are questions about whether using this material is actually sustainable. Ashley Holding, a sustainable textile consultant, points out that recycled polyester made from PET plastic water bottles is not necessarily a circular material because once it is made into polyester, it can’t be recycled again. While water bottles can be recycled back into bottles several times, once PET is turned into polyester, it is essentially a one-way trip out of the consumer world and into the landfill.
Moreover, critics argue that the use of recycled polyester made from water bottles is little more than greenwashing. Brands are able to make feel-good claims about all the bottles they have saved from landfills, but this doesn’t actually address the larger issue of plastics waste. In the US, for example, plastics recycling rates have been declining, despite the growth in the production of recycled polyester.
In addition to the issue of waste, there are also concerns about microfiber pollution. A recent study found that mechanical recycling plants can create large amounts of microplastics, which are flushed with the wastewater. This means that recycled polyester may not be as environmentally friendly as some people think.
Another issue with recycled polyester is the difficulty of recycling used textiles. When it comes to mechanically recycling PET plastic, it must be pure and free of dyes, finishes, trims, or other types of plastics. Clear plastic water bottles are ideal for recycling because they are essentially dye-free and have a simple shape. Used textiles, on the other hand, are often contaminated with a variety of different materials and come in a wide range of colors and qualities, making them much harder to recycle. In Europe, used polycotton and other textile blends are collected at three times the rate of 100-percent polyester, and that still doesn’t account for the dyes and finishes present in most fabrics.
Unifi, a North Carolina-based company, has solved some of these contamination problems by only accepting pre-consumer 100-percent polyester waste straight from factories and mixing carbon black into the polyester during the production process. The result is a pure, black recycled polyester that can be considered truly circular. However, sourcing post-consumer waste is still a challenge because of the potential for contamination and difficulty in sorting materials.
Ultimately, the use of recycled polyester may not be the panacea that some brands are hoping for. While it can be an improvement over virgin polyester, it still has limitations and challenges that make it difficult to be a truly sustainable material. Instead, the solution may lie in a greater emphasis on reducing overall consumption and waste, as well as focusing on truly circular and biodegradable materials. By taking a more holistic approach, brands can make meaningful progress toward a more sustainable future.