Is polyester a sustainable clothing fabric?
Polyester is big business in the fashion world, but is polyester a sustainable clothing fabric? Made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the most common type of plastic in the world, polyester is a synthetic but hard-wearing material that’s quick and cost-effective to produce.
In the last few decades, polyester has become a mainstay of the fashion industry, now accounting for over half of all materials used to produce clothes.
Through processing, polyester can be adapted to create all kinds of garments and to resemble the look and feel of different materials, without the cost or complaints associated with other fabrics, like fading or wrinkling.
The question: ‘Is polyester sustainable?’ is a difficult one to answer. The short answer is that polyester as a material is not inherently sustainable. However, methods and processes like using recycled plastic materials (like old plastic bottles) to make polyester for clothing does bring an element of sustainability into the equation.
So in this article, we’ll explore key questions around polyester, including ‘Is polyester recyclable?’ and ‘What is polyester made from?’, so you can weigh up the pros and cons to make informed, conscious choices about buying polyester clothing for yourself and your family.
What is polyester made from?
Polyester is a polymer – a long chain of molecules. It’s actually the product of a chemical reaction between an acid and an alcohol, usually derived from petroleum.
Some types of polyester are natural but the majority are man-made. The process of producing polyester involves the reaction of chemicals in a chamber to create the substance in its raw form – the ‘polymer’. The material is then pushed out of the reaction chamber in strips and left to cool and dry.
Once the strips have hardened, they’re cut into chips. The chips are re-melted and the thick, honey-like substance is fed through a spinneret – a bit like a sieve – to create strands.
After cooling, the fibres are stretched around cylinders to add length and reduce thickness. They’re then ready to be cut or treated as desired to create polyester clothing.
Is it recyclable?
Yep, polyester is recyclable. Depending on the recycling methods used, polyester can have a long or even indefinite lifespan. So while it may not be a natural material, recycled polyester – or rPET -still offers both practical and environmental benefits.
While virgin polyester is made from chemicals derived from fossil fuels, recycled polyester is much more sustainable, reducing waste, repurposing plastic and using half as much energy.
Sustainability is part of our mission at Brand Threads, and it’s something we apply to all areas of our business – from the materials and packaging products we use to the sourcing and manufacturing partners we work with.
We use recycled polyester wherever we can. That includes our onesies and fleece robes, and some of our fleece pyjamas – plus we use some recycled polyester in some products predominantly made from cotton. This minimises our use of virgin polyester in our fabrics – right down to the absolute bare minimum.
Is polyester endlessly recyclable?
Polyester can be recycled again and again. Unwanted polyester clothing and other PET products can be broken down mechanically or chemically, and the process of creating polyester chips, melting them down and producing yarn can begin afresh.
There are two ways to recycle polyester: mechanical and chemical. Mechanical recycling involves melting down the unwanted items, while chemical recycling breaks down the molecules using chemicals.
The mechanical method can only be used a few times before the quality of the polyester fibres is compromised. Chemical recycling, however, preserves the quality of the fibres, so they can be recycled indefinitely.
There are some exceptions to polyester recycling, though. Items that contain a mix of polyester and other materials aren’t always recyclable because the components are difficult to separate once bonded.
Mechanical recycling isn’t usually possible in these instances but there have been breakthroughs in recent years that mean many polyester mixes can now be separated chemically, which will potentially give materials longer lifespans.
Polyester clothing is durable, doesn’t shrink, stretch or wrinkle. And it dries quickly, so it should provide plenty of wear. And once it’s reached the end of its use, it can be recycled and turned into a fresh piece of clothing without the material losing its integrity.
How are recycled polyester fibres manufactured?
The first couple of steps in the manufacturing process for recycled polyester are a little bit different from the way in which virgin polyester is made.
Instead of the chemical reaction used to create polyester from scratch, recycled polyester fibres are made from existing PET sources, like plastic water bottles.
Bottles or other PET items are sterilised, crushed and melted down. At the next stage, the manufacturing process reverts to that of virgin polyester: the melted plastic is spun into string, which in turn is made into fibres. These fibres can then be transformed into fabrics and used in clothing.
Using recycled polyester reduces both waste to landfill and soil contamination, while using less energy – recycled polyester produces a significantly smaller carbon footprint than that of virgin polyester, cutting CO2 emissions by up to 20%.
For every one of our character robes we sell, we reuse 22 recycled plastic bottles; for our onesies, it’s 31. Repurposing plastic that would otherwise have gone to landfill is part of our sustainable ethos and just one of the ways we demonstrate our commitment to making a positive impact in the world.
Is polyester a comfy fabric to wear?
Polyester can be a very comfortable fabric to wear. Lightweight and soft, polyester feels slightly silky against the skin – even compared with natural fibres – and can be used in all kinds of clothing, from sportswear to snuggly robes.
Because it’s not absorbent, polyester is perfect for locking in warmth. Heat is retained inside for as long as you wear the garment, which is ideal in cold conditions and winter weather.
Polyester won’t absorb sweat or other liquids in the same way as absorbent materials like cotton. It’s also known for its durability, so the quality should remain intact regardless of regular wear and washing.
Our recycled polyester robes and onesies are designed to maximise comfort while minimising waste and reducing environmental impact. Take a look at our sustainable clothing line and browse our recycled polyester items – every purchase helps us give repurposed plastic products a longer life.
Sustainability that goes beyond recycled polyester clothing
At Brand Threads, our commitment to sustainability goes beyond manufacturing recycled polyester clothing.
Yes, we source natural fibre and recycled polyester clothing wherever we can because we care deeply about the world we live in.
Being sustainable also means driving positive change in communities and within the environment. For every product we sell, we plant a tree through social enterprise Ecologi. That equates to at least 20,000 trees a year to offset our carbon footprint! We’ve also teamed up with app reGAIN to offer a discount on orders when customers recycle their unwanted clothing at local collection points or Red Cross charity shops – more about that here.
We use recycled materials in our packaging, too – and work closely with our manufacturing partners to ensure our products are ethically made. We’ve also provided classroom equipment and laptops for schools in India and Bangladesh.
As an ethical family business, we want to play our part in ensuring a safe and fair society, a cleaner, healthier environment and a better quality of life of our suppliers, their workers, our employees and their families. Visit our sustainability page to find out more about how we put our principles into practice.