With virtually no land, water, animal, or agrochemical impacts, polyester has always been a low-impact material. Recycled polyester takes this a step further – but still has its challenges.
What is recycled polyester and where does it come from?
Polyester is a fiber made from petrochemicals. As a raw material, it is a clear, strong and flexible plastic known for its shape retention, durability and hydrophobic properties. Unlike natural fibers, it does not biodegrade but can be 100 percent recycled either by mechanical or chemical processes. The recycled polyester used for textiles most commonly comes from clear PET drinking water bottles, but it can also be made from fabric off cuts and unusable second-quality fabrics. The resulting recycled material then retains much the same properties as virgin polyester.
What are the sustainability benefits of recycled polyester?
When compared to many natural fibers that require far greater land, energy, water and chemicals inputs, virgin polyester already has a strong sustainability profile. But recycled polyester takes this to the next level. By turning a waste product into a valuable resource, for example, demand for recycled polyester helps ensure that this waste doesn’t end up in landfills, incinerators or worse, the environment. And as long as the apparel is not incinerated, it continues to act as a form of carbon sequestration, keeping the carbon it contains out of the atmosphere.
Additionally, by recycling existing materials, recycled polyester reduces the demand for crude oil extraction and virgin material production. Compared to virgin polyester, recycled polyester can reduce energy consumption by 30-50 % and CO2 emissions by nearly 60 %, as well as reduce impacts on land, air and water. Furthermore, polyester can be recycled without significantly degrading its quality, theoretically indefinitely (depending on the method of recycling: mechanical or chemical). This means that when coupled with an effective collection and recycling system, polyester has perhaps the greatest potential to create a closed loop production, providing enormous waste reductions and energy savings in the process.
Sounds too good to be true?
Many of these benefits remain just that, theoretical. Collection of PET bottles is limited worldwide, for example, and demand for polyester derived from these is increasing. Efforts to source polyester from textile waste also face challenges with collection infrastructure as well as the increased difficulty of recycling fabric blends (e.g. mixed with cotton) and non-recyclable items like zippers and buttons. Finally, given the threat polyester microfiber pollution poses to marine environments, not to mention its origins in the petrochemicals industry, not everybody is convinced that widespread use of polyester is defensible given these current realities. But many see these problems as surmountable, and that recycled polyester’s current sustainability credentials and future potential far exceed its risks.
Recycled Polyester Standards
The Recycled Claim Standard and The Global Recycled Standard both verify the recycled input material and track it all the way to the final product. The latter also ensures responsible social, environmental practices and chemical use throughout production
Illustration: Kiki Fjell