We see recycled polyester advertised all over the place as a sustainable holy grail. But, is it really all it’s cracked up to be? I recently came across a post by Anne Oudard on LinkedIn that sparked a very interesting conversation about the misconceptions of recycled polyester. Anne Oudard is a denim consultant specializing in sustainable design and development with whom I share a lot of the same values, especially our opinion on plastics, so I am so happy to be writing this collaborative piece with Anne on our poly problem!!
Half of the clothes on our planet are made from polyester and so are most of the jeans.
The success of this synthetic fiber comes from its great resistance and cheap price. But polyester also has a considerable downside: it is the most polluting fiber ever.
Polyester is made from fossil fuel and its production emits more greenhouse gases than any others. It is also the main source of microplastic pollution, accounting for 35% of the global total! An average of 700,000 fibers is released in a single load of laundry left to enter our water systems and eventually us. And if you don’t care about plastic affecting the wildlife and our planet, would you care if it was directly harming you?
WWF shows that humans are consuming 2000 tiny pieces of plastic every week. That’s approximately 21 grams a month, and just over 250 grams a year. To put that into perspective, it’s like we’re eating a credit card a week. YIKES! And with half a million tons of microfibers ending up in oceans every year, we better make sure these are not plastic.
A recent study, led by two Ph.D. students from the University of Arizona, examined 47 samples from deceased people’s organs, including lungs, livers, spleens, and kidneys, taken from a tissue bank that typically studies neurodegenerative diseases and found that every organ sample contained traces of plastic. Now we won’t play WebMD here, but surely you can imagine this is not healthy!
As more and more brands are trying to reduce their environmental impact, polyester has become the #1 fiber to avoid and the most popular alternative is now recycled polyester.
Recycled polyester emits 79% fewer greenhouse gases, sheds considerably fewer microfibres and it’s made from the recycled product! But what is it exactly?
One might believe « recycled polyester » is made from recycled polyester fabric but sorry to burst your bubble - it is not. In fact, it is made from recycled PET, commonly known as… plastic bottles! To make recycled polyester, plastic bottles are shredded into flakes, converted into pellets, melted, and spun into yarn. But, what’s wrong with diverting plastic bottles from landfills and turning them into fabric?
In order to create recycled polyester, PET material is taken out of a potentially circular economy and dragged into a linear, product-to-waste, one. Bottle-to-bottle recycling can work efficiently in a closed loop where new bottles can be made from old ones. But once a bottle is turned into polyester yarn and blended with other fibers, like cotton, it cannot be recycled anymore. There are amazing technologies extracting polyester to recycle it, but these have yet to be scaled, meaning garments containing polyester are most likely to end their life in the incinerator or landfill.
Collected plastic bottles are commonly recycled into polyester yarn, but only 7% of them are turned back into bottles. In some countries, like India, recycled content in food packaging isn’t allowed, so recycled polyester seems to be the best option to turn waste into resources. But many others don’t impose such restrictions. In fact, it’s quite the opposite!
The European Commission has adopted new rules for reducing single-use plastic, targeting 25% of recycled content in plastic bottles by 2025 and 30% by 2030. Companies are also aiming toward similar goals. Major plastic producer Pepsico wants to reduce its virgin plastic consumption by 35% in 2025 . It seems like the demand for recycled plastic in packaging will keep rising.
Some might even argue that plastic waste is so immense that it could feed both the packaging and clothing industry together. But the truth is, there is a very limited supply of recycled PET. Even if we massively improved our global plastic collection, supplies can’t meet the demand for all markets.
Ultimately, we will always need more plastic bottles to make more recycled polyester.
The urge of cutting down our reliance on fossil fuels and plastics has led the denim industry to look for new alternatives like hemp, Tencel, and linen. But, after removing the obvious cotton-poly denim from the equation, two more challenges are left to achieve 100% plastic-free jeans: stretch yarn and sewing threads.
Stretch yarns are originally made from elastane, a synthetic fiber made of polymers from petroleum products with the same environmental issues as polyester. The first denim supplier that has come up with a 100% plant-based alternative is the Italian mill Candiani. The story says that Alberto Candiani got the idea while eating Italian salami twined in natural rubber netting. This culinary epiphany led to the creation of a patented yarn named Coreva®, made from natural rubber, extracted from sustainably managed forests.
With this brand new plant-based stretch on the market, the last bit of plastic left is hiding in the sewing threads. Sewing thread components tend to be neglected when calculating the fiber composition of a garment, yet an estimated 180m is needed for making a pair of jeans! …and they are composed of polyester or cotton-poly blends. The reason 100% cotton threads aren’t so popular is that they tend to become fluffy and weak during the washing process. Recently, a cellulosic alternative has been brought on the market by Portuguese supplier Crafil. They created a 100% Tencel® sewing thread that proves to be very resistant while made from wood pulp.
The sustainable fashion leader Stella McCartney and visionary denim brands Triarchy, Boyish, and Kings of Indigo are the first to release plant-based stretch jeans proving that the industry can successfully break free from plastic!
Anne and I hope you learned a little more about why we need to reduce or reliance on polyester and are inspired to create 100% plastic-free jeans. Thank you Anne for sharing your expertise and until next time friends, STAY DILIGENT!