The Environmental Impact of Synthetic Textiles:
A Closer Look at Recycled Polyester
As our collective environmental consciousness grows, so too does our critical eye on the textile industry, particularly on the usage of synthetic textiles. Despite the general understanding that natural fibres are eco-friendlier, many are turning towards recycled synthetic alternatives, such as recycled polyester, viewing it as a lesser evil to virgin synthetic fibres. But, is this perception accurate? Let's delve into this matter, analyse the environmental cost of synthetic textiles and ponder whether recycled synthetic fibres are the green choice they are often purported to be.
Understanding Synthetic Textiles
Synthetic textiles, derived from petroleum-based products, are ubiquitous in the fashion industry. Polyester, nylon, and acrylic are some of the most common types of synthetic fibres, found in everything from clothing to carpets (World Bank, 2019). A key driver behind their popularity is their durability, their resistance to biological damage such as mould and mildew, and their typically lower cost.
However, the environmental footprint of synthetic textiles is alarming. The production of these textiles consumes an inordinate amount of energy, exacerbates air and water pollution, and results in a considerable waste problem. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2017) highlights that around 342 million barrels of oil were used to produce virgin synthetic fibres in 2015. Moreover, according to a study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (2017), synthetic textiles are responsible for 35% of global microplastic pollution. These tiny plastic particles, shed from synthetic clothing during washing, enter our waterways, causing significant harm to aquatic life and potentially entering our food chain.
"As we continue our journey towards sustainability, we must strive to minimise our reliance on synthetic textiles, even the recycled kind, and look towards natural fibres to provide us with both style and substance"
THE PARADOX OF RECYCLED POLYESTER
On the surface, recycled polyester seems to present a more sustainable alternative. Produced by recycling existing polyester fabric and PET bottles, recycled polyester consumes around 59% less energy compared to virgin polyester (Rawson, A. et al., 2020). This reduction in energy use can significantly decrease greenhouse gas emissions, a vital step towards mitigating climate change.
Yet, calling recycled polyester a truly green alternative would be misguided. It is undeniable that recycled polyester is less environmentally damaging than its virgin counterpart, but it still carries a heavy environmental toll. While it mitigates the problem of discarded plastic, it doesn't completely solve the microplastic pollution issue. A study by Plymouth University (2016) found that synthetic garments release hundreds of thousands of microplastic particles during each wash cycle, regardless of whether they are made from virgin or recycled materials.
SYNTHETIC VS NATURAL FIBRES
Instances certainly exist where synthetic fibres are required for the structural integrity or the longevity of a garment. Performance wear and outdoor gear often rely on the durability and moisture-wicking capabilities of synthetics. However, in many cases, natural fibres could effectively replace synthetic ones without compromising on quality or function.
Cotton, linen, wool, silk, and hemp are all natural fibres that are biodegradable, meaning they break down over time, unlike synthetic fibres that can take hundreds of years to decompose (Earth Pledge, 2007). Moreover, they don't shed microplastics into our waterways, presenting a less harmful alternative to our environment.
As we look towards a more sustainable future, it is vital that we consider not just the end of a product's lifecycle but the entire lifecycle, including production. Natural fibres require less energy to produce and often engage in more sustainable agricultural practices than the creation of synthetic fibres.
GREENWASHING IN THE TEXTILE INDUSTRY
In the pursuit of appearing eco-friendly, some fashion brands have resorted to "greenwashing," promoting recycled synthetics as a sustainable option, despite the availability of more environmentally friendly alternatives. While recycled synthetics are a step in the right direction, they shouldn't overshadow or replace the use of natural fibres where possible. It is crucial that we, as consumers, remain vigilant about these marketing strategies and make informed decisions when purchasing our clothes.
While recycled polyester presents an improvement over virgin synthetic fibres, it is still far from an environmentally harmless option. At Cloth & Co., we are committed to the mission of producing high-quality, natural fibre products, driving the fashion industry towards a greener, more sustainable future.
Earth Pledge (2007). FutureFashion White Papers. New York: Earth Pledge.
Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2017). A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion's future.
International Union for Conservation of Nature (2017). Primary Microplastics in the Oceans: a Global Evaluation of Sources.
Plymouth University (2016). Washing clothes releases thousands of microplastic particles into environment, study shows.
Rawson, A. et al. (2020). Environmental impact of the mechanical recycling of 100% cotton discarded textiles compared to virgin cotton processing.
World Bank (2019). The price of fast fashion.