How bad is polyester?
Polyester is everywhere. Get into any fashion brand quick and more likely than not, most clothing will be at least partly polyester. It is that of the United States fastest growing fiber and is incredibly versatile. But polyester is also made from coal and petroleum, which basically means plastic, which is part of why it’s so cheap. But just cheap is no longer good enough. In a world desperate to heal itself from climate change, how bad is polyester?
Spoiler alert: this is bad enough.
The carbon footprint of polyester is significant. The combination of petroleum and the energy required to make fiber is terribly bad for the environment. In 2015, polyester and similar man-made fibers used the equivalent of 21,000 Olympic-size oil pools. It’s incomprehensible ! In terms of greenhouse gases, the world production of polyester emits thrice as much gas as cotton.
The waste created from polyester is, unsurprisingly, also very toxic. Polyester wastewater releases harmful chemicals like antimony, cobalt, manganese salts, sodium bromide, and titanium dioxide. These substances are not well contained and end up in water and the environment, harming innocent wildlife. Antimony, for example, when exposed to animals, has been shown to have negative effects on the lungs, cardiovascular system and liver.
Microplastics are defined as tiny pieces of plastic less than 5 millimeters in size. It’s impossible to talk about polyester without talking about microplastics. When a polyester garment is washed, microplastic fibers are released from the garment. Imagine a shirt that loses a small amount of plastic every time it is thrown in the washing machine. This plastic cannot be collected and it is almost impossible to prevent the release of microplastics from these clothes. Polyester releases microplastic, study found “Regardless of washing conditions or fabric structure”.
Although these plastics are so small that they almost seem insignificant, they are anything but that. Microplastics spread like wildfire and infiltrate and pollute almost every ecosystem imaginable. They were even found in the amazing distant deep sea.
When toxic chemicals and plastic are distributed in nature, it is to be expected that they will eventually end up in our food web. We drink the water and, if you are not a vegetarian, eat the fish that lived in the same water that we throw our plastic waste into. Consumption of microplastics can modify chromosomes and cause cancer, obesity and infertility. This is a seemingly inevitable but terrifying consequence of our careless use of plastic and other man-made fibers.
What about recycled polyester?
To start, less than one percent of all textiles are recycled. Almost all polyester purchases are virgin polyester. While fiber recycling is possible, the process is far from perfect. Recycling polyester means heating it up, which can only be done a certain number of times because plastic breaks down with heat. This cycle is over, so it is not a reliable long term solution. Heating the plastic releases a “Carcinogenic antimony compound”. With the toxic wastewater mentioned earlier, the nature of polyester seems inherently detrimental.
Like most other fibers, polyester can only be recycled if it has not been blended with other fibers such as cotton. A poly-cotton blend is very popular and completely eliminates the possibility of recycling cotton or polyester from any garment. On the bright side, recycled polyester is still generally more environmentally friendly than virgin polyester, using 30-50% less energy than its virgin counterpart. So if you are going to buy polyester, going for the recycled option is a bit smarter choice.
Avoid polyester as much as possible. While this is not the only reason our ecosystems are collapsing, it does play an important role. When shopping for new clothes, try to go with degradable fibers like linen or lyocell. The little changes that ordinary people make make the biggest difference. When you buy something, you vote with your dollar on what you think is right and what you support. So please try not to put up with polyester and its toxic and microplastic spreading properties!
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