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Polyester has more uses than one might think. From our clothing, bedding materials, furniture upholstering, safety belts, packaging, balloons, carpet, bags, shoes, ropes, and more.

Polyester consists of a long chain of polymer or large molecules individually bonded together by ester linkages. Its most common form is the polyethylene terephthalate or PET.

It is versatile sure, but is polyester bad for the environment too?

Want to learn more? Check out our article Was Nylon A Gift Or A Curse for more eco-goodness!

Is polyester biodegradable?

PET polyester chips, polyester in its raw form
Photo Credit: RecycleMan

Is polyester plastic? Definitely.

As a plastics, what polyester can stand are the wear and tear, wrinkling, and water. It is very resilient and is easy to wash and wear since it dries quickly. However, it cannot stand the very high temperature (it would melt), nor can it absorb moisture or body sweat. Despite this, popularity grew in the 1970s thanks mainly to the famous wrinkle-free marketing campaigns.

Plastic polyester is, however, non-biodegradable. Its raw material called ethylene glycol, which binds other chemicals to create a stable fibrous compound, is made from petroleum.

plant-based polyester made from sugarcane has improved biodegradability. Despite being eco friendly, very few explored it because it is less durable and resistant than synthetic polyester. Also, synthetic polyester is cheaper to manufacture and is readily available compared to natural polyester.

What are the worst fabrics for the environment?

Due to limited ecological resources to accommodate the growing demand for fibers, the textile industry depends on synthetic fibers.

Synthetic fibers are man-made fibers, and their raw materials are petroleum-based chemicals. They are more durable than most natural fibers and can readily absorb dyes. Nylon, polyester, and acrylic dominate the market of synthetic fibers.

Because of the natural fibers’ biodegradability, they are more sensitive to process than synthetic fibers – not to mention the waiting period to grow plants or animals to produce a natural fiber.

It is no wonder that year after year, the ratio of synthetic fibers consumption over natural fibers increases. In 2010, 60% of the world’s apparel fiber consumption came from synthetic fibers. By 2019, this increases to 63% – while cotton was down to only 25%.

Nevertheless, synthetic fibers such as nylon, polyester, and acrylic all have an irreversible environmental impact, despite availability, affordability, and ease of use.

What Are Microfibers?

Synthetic fibers can degrade into tiny microscopic particles called microfibers. But since it is not compostable, it could accumulate in the landfills or, worse, find its way through the oceans.

Microfibers are microplastics that act like sponges and absorb toxins. They are toxic to marine life and humans as well as it enters into the food chain through phytoplanktons. Research shows that 20% to 35% of all microplastics in the marine environment are from synthetic clothing fibers.

Is cotton or polyester better for the environment?

Did you know that 70% of most synthetic fibers are made from polyester? The rest is made from rayon, nylon, acrylic, and others.

It is estimated that more than 98% of future fabric production will be synthetics. And 95% of that synthetic fiber will be polyester.

According to Tecnon Orbichem, a consultancy firm that has been a leader in providing data and analysis to the petrochemical industry, the amount of polyester produced annually increased from 5.3 million tonnes to 30.9 million tonnes in 1980 to 2007. By 2025, that number is projected to nearly triple, to 90.5 million tonnes.

The majority of the world’s PET production – about 60% – is used to make fibers for textiles. Only about 30% is used to make bottles. It is estimated that it takes about 104 million barrels of oil per year to produce PET. Sixty percent of this figure or 70 million barrels of oil per year is used to create the virgin polyester. Of the 30% being used to make bottles, only a tiny fraction becomes recycled polyester.

Despite its grim dependence on fossil fuel, polyester stood out to be one of the most favorite fabrics in the fashion industry because of its availability. Cotton, for example, could not meet the ever-increasing demand for materials due to limited land and water resources to grow them. They also compete for space with other crops, including food crops.

After an in-depth review of “Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester” commissioned by Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), we can conclude the following:

Carbon footprint

Polyester emits the most significant CO2 emissions, ranging from 7.2 to 9.52kg of CO2 per tonne of fiber.

On the other hand, CO2 emissions associated with cotton range widely from 2.35 to 5.89 kg of CO2 per tonne of fiber.

Energy requirements

The total energy required to produce one tonne of spun fiber for polyester ranges from 104,479 to 126,706 MJ.

The range of energy required for cotton varies from 11,711 MJ for organic cotton grown in a low energy use system in Punjab to 25,591MJ for conventional cotton grown in a high energy use system in the USA.

Water demand

Cotton requires much water. To produce 1kg of cotton requires 9,788–9,958 liters of water.

In contrast, water use in polyester production is less than 0.1% of that required in cotton-growing (Kalliala and Nousiainen, 1999)

Ecological footprint

It is defined by the World Wildlife Fund as the amount of the environment necessary to produce the goods and services required to support a particular lifestyle.

Polyester has an ecological footprint of only 1.67 and 2.21 gha.

In contrast, cotton has a larger ecological footprint ranging from 2.17 gha for organic cotton in the USA to 3.57 gha for conventional cotton in Punjab.

Overall, the above study implies that cotton fares better than polyester in terms of impact on climate change due to lesser energy requirements and carbon emissions. On the other hand, although polyester requires the most significant quantities of energy per tonne of spun fiber, it does not require the land area for cultivation than cotton does.

However, the study has its own limitations as it did not include the socio-economic, environmental, and health costs of producing polyester over cotton fabric. 

For example, it does not consider the number of jobs created by the cotton industry, especially in various third-world countries vis-a-vis the polyester’s big-scale manufacturing industries in China.

It also excludes the effects of harmful chemicals on polyester fibers on human health. Among of which includes:

·     dihydric alcohol and terephthalic acid in the polymers, which is toxic for the skin;

·     formaldehyde, Perfluorochemicals (PFCs), etc. that is being released when the body heats up the fabric;

·     nonstick additive Teflon, which is added for durability, stain resistance, and wrinkle resistance that is hazardous to our health; and

· carcinogenic materials such as Antimony.

So, is polyester bad for the environment?

Sustainable fashion is increasingly tricky as big-box stores race toward the bottom. Moving from “how can we make this cheaper” to “how can we make things better” is an important question to ask. Never forget that your dollars count as votes in the retail world, and our buying habits genuinely affect the market.

This is especially true among manufacturers who want to set equilibrium in the supply chain. They become torn between the lower cost of inputs and the availability of raw materials vis-à-vis externalities associated with the production.

Our best choice is to go for organic and biodegradable fabric (albeit the price is higher than the conventional ones) or go for second-hand clothes at thrift shops. 

You will be surprised to find good quality and branded clothes there! Adopting this practice will create a wardrobe of lesser quantity but better quality, more secondary waste, and more eco-friendly materials for you and the rest of the living things on earth.

If you buy polyester, avoid virgin and go out of your way to buy from brands using recycled polyester

Above all, remember that when it comes to the environment, less is always more. 

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