Are Recycled Polyester garments the lowest hanging fruit for plastic sustainability?
“Good design is sustainable design” – Iran Amed
How much do you know about polyester?
Chances are, it’s on your body right now.
Polyester is best defined as a group of polymers that consist basically of repeated units of an ester and are used especially in making fibers or plastics.
Today, even if you’re not wearing active wear or athleisure clothing, it’s likely that many (if not most) of your clothing have at least some percentage of polyester blended in it due to the fiber’s low costs, durability, and helps clothing not shrink after washing and drying.
For quite some time, polyester has dominated the market, with most data suggesting that polyester represents over 55% of the total global fiber market.
And that market share continues to grow.
According to IHS Markit’s Polyester Fiber’s 2018 market research report,
“Since 2000, consumption of polyester fibers has grown at a sustained average rate of almost 6% per year globally, because of their low cost of production, as well as versatility and relatively large spectrum of applications (from heavy-duty industrial applications to consumer apparel and home furnishing products).
Substitution of other materials has allowed polyester fiber to grow faster than the fiber market itself.”
In just 12 years, global polyester fiber production has more than doubled, from 24.7 million metric tons in 2005 to 53.7 million metric tons in 2017.
Traditionally, the world’s largest fiber was natural cotton, but due to the costs of farmland coupled with polyester’s increasing economy of scale as the fiber became more and more popular and polyester production costs became cheaper and cheaper.
Polyester officially overtook cotton as the world’s number one fiber in 2002.
While this HUGE spike may be great news for the textile and fashion industry, since polyester has become the lowest cost option since it doesn’t need farmland to produce (like its biggest competitor, cotton).
However, this is terrible news for the global plastic pollution crisis since obviously polyester IS a form of plastic and unlike cotton and natural fibers, it is of course NOT BIODEGRADABLE.
But unlike a lot of the endlessly complex problems with the plastic pollution crisis in general - such as:
- microplastics in bottled/tap water and most levels of our food supply (we wrote an informative article about microplastics and we still don't know about their long term dangers, HERE)
- the CO2 emitting dangers of incinerating plastic vs. 400+ years of plastic in landfills
- the rejection of plastics at recycling plants due to improper sorting, weathering, food/grease
……polyester can be recycled (and upcycled) MUCH easier than many other plastics and there is a large (and growing!) secondary market!
Recycled polyester is typically made from your standard PET bottles. PET stands for polyethylene terephthalate and is amongst the most common and recyclable plastic there is!
Still sadly at only a 30% recycled rate, this is more than triple the general, cumulative recycling rate of 9%!
And PET water bottles are actually amongst the highest rate of recycled single use plastic in the world!
The International Bottled Water Association explains, “According to the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), at 37.46%, the recycling rate for single-serve PET plastic bottled water containers more than doubled between 2003-2014.”
There are a few reasons PET bottles are far more easily recyclable than most plastics.
- They are everywhere. According to Statista’s Global PET bottle production 2004-2021, “In 2016, some 485 billion PET bottles were produced, and it is forecasted that in 2021, some 583.3 billion of these plastic bottles will be produced.”
The sheer volume of annual plastic production, while terrifying, mean that there will be a new, fresh, and abundant supply of PET bottles available for the foreseeable future at a relatively low cost.
- Cleaner than most plastics. One of the biggest problems with recycling single use plastics, especially those in food packaging, is that they are easily soiled and not cost effective to clean.
Worse, if just a few items are soiled, they can contaminate the entire batch of recycled plastic and all items will be discarded to landfill. PET bottles (especially water bottles) contain only require very little cleaning or sanitation compared to other single use plastics.
- Uniform and clear. (Note: this applies to the most common PET bottles which are water bottles and other soft drinks). Around the world, most PET water bottles fairly standardized with only a few different similar varieties and shapes.
The most common sizes are usually around the same size. Uniformity makes recycling easier and more cost effective. Secondly, clear bottles are best for recycling, since they can be used for any color.
And although we are focusing here on PET bottles used to create recycled polyester, PET bottles can be recycled into a number of different end products.
As the National Association for PET Container Resources explains,
“From a recycling or curbside bin, PET containers are collected, sorted, processed, cleaned, and then remanufactured into a variety of new products, including fiber for clothing and carpets; fiberfill for soft furnishings and sleeping bags; pallet strapping; food and non-food bottles, and thermoformed packaging such as cups and take-out containers.”
The reason we believe that recycled polyester is perhaps “the lowest hanging fruit for plastic sustainability” is because:
Recycled Polyester appears to be a convergence and alignment of market forces, governmental response and increased consumer awareness.
When combined, we believe this secondary market will continue to grow in flourish in the coming years.
1) PET bottles are cheap, easy to recycle, and have very high recycling rates - PET bottles have amongst the highest recycled rate, and PET water bottles are even higher at 37.5%
2) PET bottle production and consumption are at an all-time high and continue to grow - In terms of a raw material for recycling, PET bottles are globally abundant, cheap to collect (with infrastructure and bin placement widely available in virtually all developed countries), and relatively cheap to recycle.
3) Polyester production is globally at an all-time high - It is currently the world’s number one fiber (and one of the cheapest fibers) and is well anticipated to continue growing into the next decade and beyond.
4) Lower Costs Over Time - When you put together abundant and cheap raw material supply of PET bottles with extremely high demand for polyester, we strongly believe that, over time, the COST of recycled polyester will fall.
5) Shifting consumer demand/awareness towards sustainable fashion - Aiding that fall are also consumer awareness and tastes shift that will DEMAND sustainable alternatives, just as they do at the grocery store (think organic and non-GMO), a restaurant, or a car dealership (hybrid, electric, etc.)
We believe that, over time, sustainable fashion trends will mirror those of organic food trends (see chart below).
We are already beginning to see economies of scale in the recycled polyester market, and finally we are beginning to see some major players enter the sustainable clothing market.
Here at L’Aquila, we are here to help “create” this sustainable market of high-end fashion.
We are also here to create awareness, not only of the accelerating plastic crisis in general, but also how widespread plastic pollution is in the fashion industry.
So many well-meaning people don’t even know that the vast majority of their clothing contains at least some type of non-biodegradable plastic (not to mention that fashion, especially fast fashion, is amongst the dirtiest and highest polluting industries in the world!)
And with a HUGE global carbon footprint!
L’Aquila is amongst the world’s first eco-friendly, eco-conscious, and sustainable marketplace for active wear and althleisure for women.
Check out our “sustainability” Section HERE to see how our brands use recycled polyester fiber to make ultra-soft and high-quality leggings, sports bras, tanks, and more! Many are made domestically in house!
Our team handpicks the newest and hottest collections amongst dozens of sustainable brands and puts them in one place!