how does polyester affect the environment

How Does Polyester Affect the Environment?

Last Updated on August 29, 2023 by Annie Baldwin

Polyester is one of the most common fabrics used in clothing today.

But how does polyester affect the environment?

This article takes an in-depth look at polyester and its effects.

How Does Polyester Affect the Environment?

How Does Polyester Affect the Environment?

Yes, polyester generally has an overall negative impact on the environment due to its production methods, microplastic pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions.

While some polyester is produced more sustainably, most polyester manufactured today harms ecosystems and contributes to climate change.

Key Points

  • Polyester sheds microplastics when washed, polluting waterways and harming marine life
  • The production of polyester fabric generates significant greenhouse gas emissions
  • Polyester relies heavily on fossil fuels and emits more CO2 than natural fabrics like cotton

How is Polyester Produced and What is it Made From?

Polyester is a synthetic fabric made from petroleum-based polymers.

The majority of polyester is polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

To produce polyester, manufacturers first derive ethanediol and terephthalic acid from petroleum.

Next, they combine these chemicals through polymerization.

The resulting polymers are then spun into polyester fibers and yarns.

These are woven and knit into fabrics.

The polyester production process requires large amounts of water for cooling and lubricants.

This can lead to contamination.

Additionally, the manufacturing of polyester utilizes antimony, cobalt, and manganese salts as catalysts.

The production of polyester also emits more greenhouse gases compared to natural fibers like cotton.

Does the Consumption of Polyester Garments Harm the Environment?

Yes, the consumption of polyester garments negatively affects ecosystems.

When polyester garments are washed, small plastic microfibers break off and enter waterways.

These microplastics absorb toxins and can enter the marine food chain.

If ingested by aquatic life, they can cause intestinal blockage and starvation.

Over time, the accumulation of microplastics can also degrade marine habitats.

Studies have shown that polyester microfibers are found throughout the environment, from shorelines to deep-sea sediments.

They have been detected in drinking water, table salt, and even the air.

The shedding of microplastics into water systems poses risks to environmental and human health.

Does Wearing Polyester Pose Health Risks?

Polyester may aggravate skin conditions, disrupt hormones, and pose other potential health risks.

The non-breathable texture of polyester can worsen skin irritation and rashes.

Some chemicals used during production can also be absorbed through the skin.

These include antimony, which is a possible carcinogen.

Studies suggest that the phthalates used to soften polyester may be hormone disruptors.

Phthalates can migrate from clothing to skin over time.

Exposure during pregnancy is particularly concerning, as it may impact development.

More research is needed to determine the long-term risks of prolonged polyester exposure.

Have Any Brands Stopped Using Polyester?

Some apparel companies have pledged to reduce or eliminate polyester due to sustainability concerns.

Brands like Levi’s, Burberry, and Inditex have committed to phasing out polyester.

H&M aims to use recycled polyester when virgin polyester is not an option.

Several sportswear companies are also exploring alternatives.

In 2020, Adidas created a 100% recyclable cotton sneaker containing zero virgin polyester.

Despite these efforts, the majority of the apparel industry still utilizes polyester as a cost-effective fabric.

Does Recycled Polyester Have Less of an Impact?

Recycled polyester utilizes PET plastics diverted from landfills as its raw material.

This reduces reliance on virgin fossil fuels.

Studies show recycled polyester has a lower environmental impact compared to virgin polyester.

Its production requires less energy and water and emits fewer greenhouse gases.

However, recycled polyester still releases microplastics when washed.

It also utilizes the same chemical processes during manufacturing.

While recycled polyester is an improvement, its impact depends on the recycling methods used to produce it.

Closed-loop technologies that recover ocean plastics have greater environmental benefits.

How Does Polyester Impact Climate Change?

The production of polyester fabric generates significant greenhouse gas emissions that accelerate climate change.

Polyester emits 2-3 times more CO2 compared to the production of natural fibers like cotton and wool.

If current trends continue, polyester and other synthetics could account for over 20% of oil consumption by 2050.

The global rise in polyester clothing consumption is increasing textile emissions.

As polyester sheds microplastics, it also spreads petrochemicals into marine ecosystems affected by climate change.

This creates further environmental stress.

Tackling polyester production and water pollution is vital to reducing the textile industry’s impact on the planet.

Is Polyester Recyclable or Biodegradable?

Polyester is recyclable but not biodegradable.

Unlike natural fabrics, polyester does not decompose.

However, polyester clothing and fabrics can be mechanically recycled.

The polymers are broken down into PET flakes and pellets to make new fibers.

Chemical recycling is another emerging technology that depolymerizes polyester via chemical processes.

This produces raw materials to manufacture virgin polyester again.

While promising, recycling capacity currently remains limited globally.

Most polyester still ends up in landfills and waterways.

What Are Some Sustainable Alternatives to Polyester?

Some more sustainable alternatives to polyester include:

  • Organic cotton – Grown without pesticides and toxic chemicals. Its production emits fewer greenhouse gases.
  • Lyocell (Tencel) – Made from sustainably harvested eucalyptus trees. Lyocell is biodegradable and uses a closed-loop manufacturing process.
  • Hemp – Hemp fabric has a lower environmental footprint and fewer chemical processing requirements compared to polyester.
  • Linen – Made from the flax plant, linen is biodegradable, long-lasting, and requires little pesticide use.
  • Wool – A renewable and biodegradable material. Look for ethically sourced wool.
  • Silk – A naturally derived protein fiber that is biodegradable. Ensure humane production standards.

Transitioning towards these more sustainable, natural fabrics can help reduce dependence on synthetics like polyester.

Is 100% Polyester Environmentally Friendly?

No, 100% polyester fabric cannot be considered environmentally friendly.

While polyester has lower land and water requirements compared to cotton, its overall impact is quite harmful.

Pure polyester sheds microplastics into waterways when washed.

Its production utilizes substantial amounts of water for cooling while generating greenhouse gas emissions.

Polyester also cannot biodegrade, persisting as plastic waste in landfills.

The petroleum-based chemicals used to manufacture polyester pose environmental and health risks if improperly handled.

While recycled polyester has a lower footprint, most polyester produced today is virgin polyester.

Overall, 100% polyester cannot be regarded as an eco-friendly fabric.

The Bottom Line

Polyester has some negative environmental impacts related to microplastics, chemical pollution, and greenhouse gases.

However, its effects can be mitigated through sustainable production practices and closed-loop recycling.

Consumers also play a role by washing synthetics less, buying natural fabrics, and recycling polyester items.

Overall, reducing virgin polyester production and increasing recycling efforts is key to diminishing its footprint.

The bottom line is that polyester affects the environment through its production, waste, and microplastic pollution.

However, improvement is possible through innovation in textile sustainability.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Polyester Made From?

Polyester is made from petroleum-based polymers, mainly polyethylene terephthalate (PET). The raw materials for polyester are derived from crude oil.

Can You Recycle Polyester Clothing?

Yes, polyester clothing can be recycled through mechanical and chemical recycling processes. However, the global recycling capacity for polyester remains limited.

Is Polyester Biodegradable?

No, polyester is not biodegradable. As a synthetic fabric, polyester resists decomposition and will not break down naturally over time.

How Long Does Polyester Last in Landfills?

Polyester is estimated to take up to 200 years to decompose in landfills because it is resistant to natural biodegradation. This makes polyester a major contributor to plastic pollution.

The writers at GreenChiCafe care deeply about our natural world. Please check out our website for more content on living sustainably.

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