A blend of polyester and cotton – a match made in heaven say some as the two fibers can have complimentary sustainability profiles. End-of-life recycling? Not quite yet.
What exactly is polycotton?
Polycotton refers to hybrid fabrics that mix polyester and cotton fibers. By adjusting the relative ratios of each fiber, the material can combine and fine-tune the breathability and natural “feel” of cotton with the durability and cost-savings of polyester.
Is polycotton sustainable?
To understand the environmental impact of polycotton, the life cycles of cotton and polyester need to be considered both separately and combined. In short, conventional polyester is derived from non-renewable fossil fuels, while conventional cotton requires relatively high inputs and land to produce. But as polyester requires comparatively little energy, water, and land inputs and as cotton has the desirable advantage of being natural, some argue that the two sustainability profiles complement one another: A lower-impact and partially renewable material with the potential for longevity.
Are there better alternatives?
The respective fibers can additionally be more sustainably sourced – such as from recycled or organic cotton producers and recycled polyester – further reducing polycotton’s total impacts. Many brands have already begun replacing regular collections with polycotton certified in this manner. Polycotton’s end-of-life scenario, however, remains the primary focal point of the current sustainability conversation.
How easy is it to recycle polycotton?
In their pure form, both cotton and polyester can easily be recycled. Indeed, this is even widespread and has substantial investments in infrastructure in place. Combined polycotton, however, remains a challenge to recycle and it is not currently available on a broad level. This means that until such solutions come to market, polycotton is far more likely to end up in landfills or incinerators than non-blended materials. Furthermore, the polyester component also makes polycotton fabrics not biodegradable, meaning they will contribute to marine microfiber pollution. While there are several promising pilot programs, such as those that are able to chemically dissolve polycotton down to its molecular levels and then reconstitute these into new polyester and viscose fibers, creating an economically viable solution that can be implemented at the scale required has yet to be found.
Illustration: Kiki Fjell