Polyester & Synthetics

Is Recycled Polyester Green or Greenwashing?

Recycled polyester is becoming increasingly ubiquitous in the fashion market, but some experts say the material isn't a long-term solution or that sustainable. CO takes a closer look.

When Nike feted World Cup uniforms made from recycled polyester in 2010, the idea of melting down cast-off plastic bottles and spinning them into textiles was still a novel concept. Today, just about every apparel brand, from American Eagle to Zara, brandishes the material as evidence it is “going green.” 

The appeal is clear: Recycled polyester, also known as recycled polyethylene terephthalate or rPET for short, has a smaller carbon footprint than its virgin counterpart. Reclaiming plastic waste also keeps it from becoming trash—or fodder for marine animals such as turtles and whales. 

Although companies frequently market shoes and clothing made with rPET as a guilt-free way to consume fashion, not everyone is convinced of its virtues. Here are the top things you need to know before you deploy rPET into your lineup. 

Dominique one piece by Mara Hoffman by Repreve | Source Mara Hoffman

rPET is better for the planet

Polyester, which is typically derived from petroleum-based ingredients, accounts for more than 65% of the fibres used in the textile and apparel industry, which means that employing rPET as a direct replacement immediately takes a load off dwindling finite resources. 

Creating rPET is less polluting, too. A 2017 life-cycle analysis found that manufacturing rPET generates 79% less carbon emissions than producing its virgin counterpart. 

Even better: turning unwanted bottles into fleece jackets or swimsuits reduces plastic waste, which is inundating waterways and clogging up landfills. To promote transparency, certain manufacturers, such as Repreve, can tag rPET across the value chain, from bottle collection to the delivery of the finished product. 

Read more here about fashion's impact on world's oceans

rPET still generates microfibres 

All textiles shed in the wash, whether natural or not. What sloughs-off synthetic materials like polyester, however, are what scientists call “fibrous microplastics,” which persist in the environment and never degrade. 

Because they measure less than 5 millimetres in length, most slip past sewage-plant filters and enter lakes, rivers, and oceans, where they may be mistaken as food by marine life. One University of California Santa Barbara study found that a single synthetic fleece jacket releases an average of 1.7 grams of microfibres.

Whether a polyester fabric sheds more or less has less to do with the amount of recycled fibres it contains and more with the thickness, elongation, or twist of the yarn, says Dr. Karen Leonas, professor of fashion and textile management at NC State University, where she studies microfibre release. 

More work needs to be done harmonising disparate microfibre testing methodologies before anything can be established conclusively, but brands such as Patagonia and The North Face have been pushing for a single standard. 

PET plastic being mechanically recycled into bottle flakes| source Trevira

Know that rPET has its limitations …

Plastics bottles tend to be mechanically rather than chemically recycled, which means they’re chopped up into flakes, melted down, and then extruded through spinnerets to create yarn for knitting or weaving into textiles.

The problem? rPET manufactured this way cannot be mechanically recycled a second time, let alone multiple times, without a steep decline in the quality of the fibres, which get progressively shorter and weaker. 

While chemical recycling poses a solution, few scalable technologies can currently recycle old rPET garments into new rPET garments. “The market share for chemically recycled polyester is still very low at the moment,” says Sophia Opperskalski, a researcher at the sustainability nonprofit Textile Exchange

The bottling industry’s plan to increase its use of recycled PET is something else brands should watch for, since it can impact their supply. (PepsiCo, for instance, wants to increase the recycled content of its beverage packaging to 25% by 2025, while Coca-Cola has pledged to make all its plastic bottles from 50% recycled plastics by 2030.) “You want to make sure that you receive the materials in the quality and the amounts at the times you need them,” she says. 

Read more on CO about the global production of synthetics

Ocean plastic | source Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

… and its critics

Maxine Bédat, founder of the New Standard Institute, a New York sustainable-fashion think tank, doesn’t see the point in taking away bottles from the bottling industry, not when it has already perfected bottle-to-bottle recycling. “If we take them away from bottling, we're taking away from a closed-loop system,” she says. 

Because of this, Bédat says much of the marketing-speak around rPET—as a virtuous act that will fix everything wrong with fashion—is tantamount to greenwashing, particularly when textile suppliers such as Unifi, which owns Repreve, remains one of the world’s largest manufacturers of virgin polyester. (Recycled fibres currently make up 35% of Unifi’s business, according to Jay Hertwig, the company’s global brand sales and marketing manager, though he expects that number to hit 50% in a few years.)

“Current volumes of extraction are vanishingly small compared to the overall volumes in the ocean” 

But even rPET’s role in reducing the burden of ocean waste may be oversold, according to Adam Minter, a Bloomberg opinion columnist and author of Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade. “Current volumes of extraction are vanishingly small compared to the overall volumes in the ocean,” he says. “And even if they could be scaled up to account for, say, 50% of all apparel-related polyester—and they can't be, not right now—it would still make no real difference to the problem.”

But it also has its defenders

Still, the world is buried in plastic and can use all the help it can get, says Ian Rosenberger, founder and CEO of First Mile, which connects waste-picking micro-economies with brands such as Ralph Lauren and Puma, and its consumer-facing accessory offshoot, Day Owl.

Indeed, just 29.1% of PET bottles were recycled in 2017 in the United States alone, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (And that was before China stopped accepting the world’s plastic waste.)

“When we get to the point where there isn't enough PET to go around and we're forced to find recycled alternatives, then we can have this conversation,” he says. “Until then, we should quit speaking in theoreticals and get to work cleaning up the mess, and the mess. Is. Enormous.”

As for the issue of microplastics? Rosenberg suggests making products that don’t require regular laundering (if at all), such as bags and shoes. “If microfibres are making their way into waterways through washing machines, then you make a product that doesn’t shed within that stream,” he says. 

Consider other alternatives, too

Biosynthetics such as bio-based polyester, made from corn or other plant-based resources, are an emerging material that present a further opportunity to move away from petroleum entirely, though some critics question the safety of genetically modified organisms (which could potentially escape into the environment) or the use of valuable cropland to grow the necessary feedstocks. 

Recycled nylon is another option; nylon waste (produced from carpets, textile off-cuts, or recaptured fishing nets) is usually chemically depolymerised into their building-block monomers, a process that allows the fibres to be recycled multiple times without losing integrity. 

See Fabric Switch: Sourcing Sustainable Polyester & Synthetics

CO View

Making long-lasting products that can be repaired and resold to multiple owners should be every brand’s first instinct, since doing so staves off the need for end-of-life management until all options are exhausted. Transitioning any virgin polyester content in your assortment to recycled versions can reduce your carbon footprint, but be careful not to tout the material as a silver-bullet solution to fashion’s environmental crisis, which largely stems from the overproduction of cheap and disposable garments. Its impact on ocean pollution is limited, as is its recyclability. Instead, look to fully circular fibre alternatives and reduce the overall amount of polyester in your collections.

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Jasmin Malik Chua

Journalist at Freelance