Did You Know That Your Clothes Are Made From Recycled Plastic?
Nearly half of the world’s clothing is made of polyester and Greenpeace forecasts this amount to nearly double by 2030. The athleisure trend if one of the main reasons behind it: an increasing number of consumers are look for stretchier, more resistant garments. The problem is, polyester is not a sustainable textile option, as it is made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the most common type of plastic in the world. In short, the majority of our clothes come from crude oil, while the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is calling for drastic actions to keep the world’s temperature to a maximum of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.
A non-profit organization Textile Exchange challenged over 50 textile, apparel and retail companies (including giants like Adidas, H&M, Gap and Ikea) to increase their use of recycled polyester by 25 percent by 2020. It worked: the organization issued a statement celebrating that signatories have not only met the goal two years before the deadline, they have actually exceeded it by upping their use of recycled polyester by 36 percent. In addition, twelve more companies have pledged to join the challenge this year. The organization forecasts 20 percent of all polyester to be recycled by 2030.
What is Polyester?
We know polyester is a fabric, and that it has certain qualities that make it a great choice for clothing. It has a slight stigma in fashion, as it’s a man-made fabric and not a natural choice such as silk, cotton, or wool. But even though it is not natural, it’s gotta have some positive qualities, right?
It is a popular choice for apparel because polyester fibers are thermoplastic, or heat-sensitive. This means that fabrics, which are 100% polyester, can be given permanent pleats and decorative shapes and patterns can be laser-cut into them. They are also highly stain-resistant, so great for cleaning.
You might notice that when a garment is 100% polyester, that is it prone to static build-up. This is a nightmare when it comes to ensuring your hair looks good, and you might find yourself being able to give people static shocks – which, although harmless, can be pretty annoying! To eliminate this issue, polyester is often blended with more stable fibers, such as cotton. This is then known as polycotton and it embodies the benefits of both fabrics; strong, durable, wrinkle-resistant and far more breathable than 100% polyester.
Polyester clothing tends to be slippery and almost silky to touch. The fibers can be woven or knitted to create the fabric, although knitted will maximize its flexibility. It is a naturally bright fiber and can be modified easily for different uses.
Brief History of Polyester
In 1926, United States-based E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co. began research into very large molecules and synthetic fibers. This early research, headed by W.H. Carothers, centered on what became nylon, the first synthetic fiber. Soon after, in the years 1939-41, British research chemists took interest in the du Pont studies and conducted their own research in the laboratories of Calico Printers Association, Ltd. This work resulted in the creation of the polyester fiber known in England as Terylene.
In 1946, du Pont purchased the right to produce this polyester fiber in the United States. The company conducted some further developmental work, and in 1951, began to market the fiber under the name Dacron. During the ensuing years, several companies became interested in polyester fibers and produced their own versions of the product for different uses. Today, there are two primary types of polyester, PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and PCDT (poly-1, 4-cyclohexylene-dimethylene terephthalate). PET, the more popular type, is applicable to a wider variety of uses. It is stronger than PCDT, though PCDT is more elastic and resilient. PCDT is suited to the heavier consumer uses, such as draperies and furniture coverings. PET can be used alone or blended with other fabrics to make clothing that is wrinkle and stain resistant and retains its shape.
What Polyester is Made of?
Polyester is made up of long-chain polymers. Today there are two primary types of polyester called polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and poly-1, 4-cyclohexylene-dimethylene (PCDT). PET is the most popular type as it is applicable to a wider variety of uses and is stronger than PCDT. However, PCDT is more elastic and resilient and is used in heavier consumer applications.
Synthetic polyester is made using a chemical reaction involving coal, petroleum, air and water. This material is made up of purified terephthalic acid (PTS) or its dimethyl ester dimethyl terephthalate (DMT) and monotheluene glycol (MEG). It holds 10% of the market share for all plastic materials, coming third in terms of popularity after polyethylene (33.5%) and polypropylene (19.5%).
The most common type of chemical reaction used to make polyester takes place at high temperatures in a vacuum. A petroleum by-product, alcohol, and carboxyl acid are mixed to form a compound known as monomer or “ester.” This reaction is known as polymerization. The polymer material created during polymerization is extruded while hot into long fibers that are stretched until they are about five times their original length. The resultant fiber forms an arrangement of molecules that is very strong.
How Recycled Plastic Made Into Polyester?
Take new polyester vs. recycled polyester. Virgin polyester is made from a combination of coal, ethylene (which is derived from petroleum), air, and water, which are formed from a chemical reaction under extremely high heat. It’s a high energy process that relies on even more energy and natural resources when you consider the amount of resources it takes to extract coal and petroleum from the earth. Not great.
Recycled polyester, on the other hand, is made from recycled plastic bottles which cuts out the need for petroleum and coal extraction. Recycled polyester literally starts at the dump to collect plastic bottles that don’t belong in landfills. From there, the plastic bottles are shredded into flakes by a machine. Those flakes are melted down into pellets, then the pellets are extruded (think spun and pulled like taffy) into yarn. The yarn is then knitted, cut, and sewn into clothing just like any other yarn. Check out this video for the whole breakdown.
It is undeniable that polyester fabric has a huge variety of beneficial uses, in a wide variety of sectors. As with any synthetic material, reactions can occur, but these are pretty limited, especially when polyester is blended with other fibers, such as cotton. Adverse reactions to fabrics and textiles (even natural ones) are always a possibility, but overall, the use of polyester can be extremely beneficial and useful.
As a citizen of the world, we have undeniable responsibility to consume more earth-friendly products. Let's start with buying products that made from recycled materials instead of virgin materials that will hurt our earth more!
Nara Loca Abadi is a recycled plastic specialist that concerned about the earth and environment by promoting the use of recycled PET flakes, recycled PET, recycled PP & HDPE granules to various plastic and polyester manufacturers.