Why is Polyester so harmful for the environment?
Polyester was crucial in revolutionising the garment industry and making clothing affordable for the masses. This fabric has been able to be an amazing alternative to fabrics like cotton, silk and even wool. This is the fabric that gave impetus to Fast Fashion. Read more about 'What is Fast Fashion' here. But, there is no free lunch! What is cheap for the public and profitable for corporations turns out to be very costly to the environment. So, let’s find out more about polyester.
What is Polyester?
Polyester is a shortened name for Polyethylene Terephthalate i.e PET. Heard of PET Bottles? Yes, Polyester and PET bottles are essentially the same Polymers. In textiles, PET is known as Polyester. Although polyester can be made from renewable resources like corn starch etc, almost all of the polyester currently is produced from Crude Oil. Polyester contributes to 55%  of the total fabric consumption. Although Polyester originated in USA, the largest producer for this fabric is China.
Uses of Polyester
Polyester fabric has extensive applications in the textile industry - from garments to home furnishings. Shirts, pants, dresses, even fleece winterwear can be made from polyester. Polyester can be used in anything where cotton is used. It can even be an alternative to silk and wool. It’s also widely used as upholstery, bed & bath linen. Sofa and pillow covers, rugs, curtains are applications where polyester is widely used. Microfibre is a type of polyester that has good absorbency and softness and is used kitchen and bath. Polyester is commonly used in blends with other natural fibres like cotton. The resulting fabric becomes superior since it takes the characteristics of both fibres. Polyester also has a lot of Industrial applications like seat belts, conveyor belts, tarpaulins etc.
Characteristics of Polyester Fabric
- Polyester is strong, crease-resistant, soft and has a good drape.
- Polyester dyeing requires fewer chemicals as compared to cotton. It resists shrinkage and stretching.
- Polyester dries very quickly.
- Polyester is not breathable hence it is difficult for the sweat to escape. This makes polyester one of the worst fabrics for summers.
- Polyester is prone to static electricity built up.
- It is not water absorbent.
- Polyester, like other plastics is not biodegradable.
As we mentioned above, there is no free lunch. The inexpensive nature of polyester has a huge environmental cost and at all stages of its lifecycle.
Although it is possible to make Plant-based Polyester, Polyester which is available commonly is manufactured with Crude Oil as the input. Processing Crude oil into polyester has environmental impact on both land and water due to the numerous toxins released. The dyes and treatments on the fabrics also release toxins into water. Additionally, the labour used in manufacturing these apparel is generally exploited and exposed to poor working conditions.
Synthetic fibres like polyester release microplastics when they are washed. These enter our waterways and enter our bodies through the water and food we consume. It is estimated that we ingest plastic equivalent to a credit card every week . Although there is no clear evidence of the impact of microplastic on humans, it can’t be a good thing to be ingesting microplastics.
Polyester is non biodegradable. Polyester recycling is still in a nascent stage and almost whole of Polyester clothing enters into landfills which mostly gets incinerated. Across industries, only 13% of the total textile material input is in some way recycled after clothing use . Although combating plastic waste has gained awareness, the same cannot be said for Polyester clothing.
Since the past few years, polyester is also manufactured using recycled PET bottles. This type of Polyester is called R-PET. The polyester such made consumes less energy as compared to making virgin polyester. Having said that, R-PET is still a type of plastic and is non biodegradable.
Polyester is the victim of it’s own success. Polyester is extremely cheap and has been instrumental in getting the prices of natural fibres down. Due to it’s inexpensive nature, Fast fashion companies use polyester extensively in their apparel collections. Consumers now prefer style over durability and this demand for stylish clothes at a very low cost can be fulfilled by using polyester.
We advocate minimizing the usage of Polyester wherever possible. There are some areas where polyester trumps natural fibres like cotton for e.g. in Outdoor wear in terms of durability and comfort. As consumers, we need to fight the temptation of Fast fashion and try to consume natural fabrics as much as possible.
The most important mindset change we need to make is that we need to think of Polyester just as another plastic. So, let’s modify the statement “Say no to Plastic” to “Say no to Plastic & Polyester”.
 Preferred fiber market report (2016)
Ellen MacArthur Foundation, A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future, (2017, http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications)