Is Polyester a Sustainable Option?
As a company with sustainability goals in mind, ÀLA.HAUSSE considers the global plastics issue of significant concern. The Earth is absolutely riddled with billions of empty bottles, plastic bags, disposable cutlery, and all other kinds of easy-to-use, convenient items. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there is 8.5 billion tons of plastic on the planet, 6.3 billion of which is trash (the equivalent of 55 million jumbo jets).
Convenience, Plastics, and Polyester
Our relentless need for convenience is no doubt the culprit behind this plastic epidemic. Convenience is key to the modern age, and plastics solve most issues related to convenience. If you’re on the go and you need something quick (which is just about everyone on the planet), a plastic item is likely within arms reach to provide that service.
Which is why synthetic fabrics like polyester became so widely popular; the convenience. Polyester is strong. It can be washed again and again, and it doesn’t wrinkle. It has a high resistance to stretching, shrinking, abrasion, mildew and moths; problems that have plagued wearers of natural clothing fibers for thousands of years. It is of no wonder that polyester is now the most widely used modern fabric in the world, accounting for 80% of the synthetic fiber market and over 50% of the entire clothing market.
Persistent Polyester and the Microplastics Predicament
After 80 years of dominating the clothing industry, polyester has found itself in a bit of a sustainability conundrum. Because of its plastic nature, polyester fabrics don’t degrade in the same timeframe that a natural fabric would. In fact, a polyester shirt at best may degrade within 20 years, but at worst, it could take as long as 200 years.
This is a problem for the health of not only the planet, but our own health as well. Despite their seemingly eternal characteristics, polyester items slowly break apart into small bits of plastic known as microplastics. These practically invisible bits of plastic are then accidentally ingested by just about every animal on the planet, including ourselves, through the air we breathe and the food we eat. Extended exposure to these microplastics has been shown to be linked to inflammatory lesions, neurotoxicity, and increased cancer risk in humans.
Essentially, microplastics are the modern asbestos, except the issue isn’t contained to buildings requiring insulation, it’s everywhere. This begs the question, is polyester really worth it?
Advantages of Polyester
Given it’s lengthy shelf life, polyester does have its advantages from both a sustainability and a convenience standpoint. It lasts long, which would mean that its less likely to be thrown out. It is also more likely to be passed along, as it would be in relatively good condition by the time the average person would lose interest in it. However, a lengthy shelf life is not always a good thing in the long run. That clothing item may be passed around for 10 years, but within 100 years, when its pieces are immortalized as microplastics scattered to the wind, they’ll still persist and will still be causing issues.
And yet, polyester seems to redeem itself in its extreme versatility. Depending on the way it is manufactured, polyester can appear and feel like silk, cotten, linen or wool. As such It is used in many different kinds of apparel, from loungewear to evening wear to winterwear (polyester is an excellent insulative material). This takes the pressure off these other fabric industries to sustain the consumer’s need for clothing items, thereby reducing their environmental impact on the planet.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle Polyester
Polyester is also recyclable. It can be made from plastics like bottles and other containers that would otherwise become trash. Known as rPET, recycled polyester can be processed into just about anything. For example, it only takes five soda bottles to produce one extra large polyester t-shirt, and according to the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment, the process is 59 per cent less energy intensive than virgin polyester.
Nothing Lasts Forever…Or so we Thought
However, the issue with most recyclables is that every time the plastics are reused, the synthetic fibers lose their integrity. This results in an end product that is of less quality than the original it was derived from.
Amazingly, 100 per cent polyester items may one day circumnavigate this problem and become fully recyclable without losing their integrity. As Textile Exchange, a non-profit in the fiber and materials industry, explained on their website, “garments from recycled polyester aim to be continuously recycled without degradation of quality.”
Most polyester clothing items are a mix of both polyester and natural clothing fibers, like cotton. This makes them only recyclable via the more expensive method of chemical separation, rather than mechanical. Perhaps at some point in time this process can be streamlined and transformed into an efficient, closed loop system, As for now, polyesters remain a significant burden on the plastics issue, both micro and macro.
The Double-Edged Sword that is Polyester
And not unlike our mastering of the atom, nuclear energy, and the nuclear bomb, so too the invention of polyester has its positives and its negatives. This is no hyperbole. The global plastics issue is not one to be underestimated, and should be considered as disastrous as a nuclear explosion. But ÀLA.HAUSSE faces these issues like any other; with the foreknowledge that change can be achieved if the individual changes. It is up to all of us to alter our own purchasing habits so that they are more sustainable, consumer and provider alike; only then will we see the results we require.
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