polyester facts and guide
Planet

Polyester material and clothing facts: safety, sustainability, and more

We’re starting the material guide section – if you want to find out how sustainable your wardrobe is, bookmark this link!

What is polyester

Polyester is a man-made synthetic material. It is made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

That’s a complicated way of saying that polyester is made from plastic!

Polyester material is any textile or fabric created by using polyester yarns or fibers.

Polyester is a short way of referring to any man-made polymer. Polymer is a synthetic material made from mixing ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid.

Polyester is most often made from plastic that comes from crude oil (petroleum), which is a fossil fuel.

Polyester’s origin story

First invented by British chemists from the Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) in the 1940s, polyester can be used to make clothing, furnishings, textiles, and even seat belts! British chemists were researching new textiles because WWII made getting cotton difficult. Polyester is a versatile fabric that offered a replacement to other fabrics in wartime Britain.

If you’re not sure if your clothes are polyester, you can check the label. Here’s a video on how polyester is made nowadays:

Is polyester sustainable?

If you look in your wardrobe, you’re likely to find some clothing made out of polyester. This man-made, synthetic material is the most common fiber in the world. It makes for about half of the whole fiber market and almost all of the synthetic fiber market.

It’s a very affordable fabric, which also doesn’t wrinkle. Polyester might be convenient, but it is hardly a sustainable material.

What is polyester like?

You may own more polyester clothing than you’d first expect because sometimes polyester is mixed with natural fabrics. To understand why polyester has become popular and why it’s a contribution to fast fashion, we need to know it’s characteristics. Polyester is typically:

Used in outerwear

Polyester material is durable and resistant to certain chemicals. This makes it a sensible choice for outwear where clothing sees the most use and weather conditions. It also dries quickly as it isn’t a breathable fabric like cotton.

Youthful

Polyester is resistant to wrinkling, shrinking, and stretching. This makes it a popular choice in the fashion industry.

Easy to look after

As it doesn’t really wrinkle or shrink, polyester clothing doesn’t require too much attention. Polyester clothing doesn’t need dry cleaning. This convenience has led to polyester’s popularity.

Here’s a great video from FittDesign Studio on polyester tips and tricks in sports wear:

Is polyester vegan?

Polyester is a vegan-friendly fabric. It is a synthetic textile that isn’t made from animals. Fashion lovers looking for a durable, affordable, vegan-friendly fabric may want to consider using polyester.


But polyester does have its downsides! Let’s look at some of the points polyester is often criticized for.

Crude oil

Polyester comes from crude oil, which is a fossil fuel. You might also know crude oil as petroleum. Crude oil is found in underground reservoirs and obtained through drilling, strip mining, or fracking.

According to Greenpeace, we use almost 70 million barrels every year to meet the demand for polyester.

Crude oil comes with a whole host of environmental issues, including oil spills.

One of the biggest oil spills in history was very recent! In 2010, in the Gulf of Mexico, over 130 million gallons of oil were released into the Gulf. Oil spills have a big negative impact on the environment and animal life.

A more recent method of getting crude oil is fracking. Fracking is controversial because it can release toxic air particles and harm local water supplies.

So is polyester biodegradable?

No.

Unfortunately, polyester can last anywhere between 20 and 200 years depending on its environment.

Do you have polyester clothing you don’t wear anymore? Don’t throw it away! Donate it or sell it.

Polyester’s impact on water

One of the good things about polyester is that it does use less water than some natural fabrics such as cotton. But polyester can have a negative impact on water in multiple ways. Polyester releases microfibres when washed and improper polyester production also releases harmful chemicals into the water.

Microfibres

Maybe you’ve heard about microbeads from beauty products, but microfibres are actually more common in our water sources.

When synthetic clothing is washed, they release microfibres. Microfibres are small, plastic threads that are even thinner than a human hair.

In 2016, researchers found that after washing synthetic clothes up to 40% of released microfibres travelled to water sources. Which water sources (rivers, oceans, lakes) depend on local conditions. But, basically, washing synthetic fabrics means plastic is going into our water.

Here’s how it works:

Some of that water is inhabited by animal life like fish. These animals end up consuming microfibres without knowing it. When we eat these animals, we are eating microfibres too. Microfibres have also been found in bottled water.

Chemical dyes

Polyester requires chemical dyes in production. These chemical dyes are known as disperse dyes. Although research is being done to try and find alternative, more environmentally-friendly dyes, right now polyester production uses toxic chemicals that pose a risk to aquatic animal life and humans with skin sensitivities.

Is polyester safe?

Polyester is safe to wear and use.

Polyester material isn’t highly flammable, but will start to melt when ignited which can cause burns.

Avoid wearing polyester clothing around open flames.

Polyester isn’t breathable like cotton.

Synthetic fibers like polyester can’t absorb sweat, which means sweat gets trapped on your skin. If you want a comfortable fabric to wear in summer, polyester isn’t the best option.

Seek medical advice if your skin is irritated after wearing polyester. You may have a polyester allergy.

While polyester is safe to wear and use, microfibres may have an impact on human health. The World Health Organization (WHO) has called for more research in this area

What are the best polyester alternatives?

While polyester is durable, affordable, and wrinkle-resistant, it isn’t a sustainable textile.

Unfortunately, it originates from fossil fuels, isn’t biodegradable, and can contaminate water sources with microplastics.

But there are alternatives to buying new polyester:

rPET

Textile Exchange, a non-profit organization, has been working to push the fashion industry towards recycled polyester (rPET) instead. In 2017, the non-profit called for fashion companies such as H&M and Target to increase their rPET usage by 25%. That target was achieved after one year.

The fashion industry is capable of changing when consumers demand it. If you’re interested in purchasing polyester clothing, look for recycled polyester when possible. Recycled polyester makes use of plastic that already exists like water bottles! This helps to cut out the fossil fuel demand.

Washing Smarter

Whenever we wash polyester clothing, microfibres are released. But there are ways to reduce the number of microfibres. It’ll also help your clothes last longer!

Fill Up Your Machine: If your washing machine is filled, there won’t be as much friction between the fabrics so fewer microfibres are released.

Cold Washing: Washing on a colder setting will also save you a bit of money. Washing polyester on higher temperatures releases more microfibres and can damage the clothing in the long run.

Trashing Lint: If you’re cleaning out your washing machine, you can throw the lint into the trash instead of washing it away. Although this isn’t a perfect solution, it will prevent some microfibres from going into water sources.

Second Hand

If you have clothing you no longer want, you can sell it second hand to make some money back or donate it to charity.

Buying clothes second-hand cuts out the fast fashion industry and fossil fuel industry completely. And there’s nothing better than finding a great deal in a second-hand clothing shop.

Go to your local second-hand clothing shop or charity shop to find quality clothes for good prices. If you’re lucky, you could even come across designer clothing for a bargain.

Here’s a video with more ideas on textile (including polyester) recycling:

Have you ever bought second-hand polyester clothing? Let us know!

Featured image source: Croftmill

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