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Polyester – is it sustainable?

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Let's take a closer look at the lifecycle of polyester fibers.

Polyester is extremely popular and can be found virtually everywhere. Bet you are wearing it right now! Despite its popularity, many myths and questions have been raised about polyester, and over the years this material has gained many fans, as well as many opponents.

What is polyester made of? How is it produced? Is it biodegradable or recyclable? In this article, we will answer the most common questions about polyester, explain its role in the textile industry, and provide more information about its lifecycle.

Let’s start from the beginning:

What is polyester made of?

Polyester is made of purified terephthalic acid (PTA) and mono-ethylene glycol (MEG), both derived from fossil fuels. It is the name used for the fiber form of polyethylene terephthalate, popularly known as PET plastic. Yes, that’s correct - polyester is made from the same material as water bottles, food packaging, plastic cutlery, and even a lot of sporting equipment!

Polyester is therefore a synthetic, man-made fiber patented a little over 80 years ago in the UK. In other words: polyester is plastic.

What is polyester used for?

Nowadays, polyester is the most widely used fiber worldwide. Its growing popularity comes from polyester’s numerous qualities. First, this fiber is very durable; it shows high elasticity while being lightweight at the same time. Polyester clothes retain their original shape for a long time and do not stretch, and very often do not require ironing. Additionally, polyester has a high abrasion resistance, dries quickly, and is easily dyed.

Quite a few convenient qualities, right? Add to the list a low production cost (compared to other commonly used fibers) and you have checked all the boxes for a synthetic fiber rock star in terms of popularity!

While polyester is widely known for its application in clothing, many more industries benefit from its qualities. You will find this fiber in many home furnishing materials such as bedsheets, curtains, blankets, and pillowcases, but also tires, insulating tapes and wires, conveyor and safety belts, sports gear, sportswear, nets, carpets, ropes, automotive upholstery, covers, tablecloths, and… mouse pads!

Popular applications of polyester fibers.
Popular applications of polyester fibers.

Sustainability of polyester

Today, polyester has a huge group of fans and a same-size group of opponents. Many appreciate it for its above-noted qualities, availability, and affordability, while others point out polyester production’s negative effects on the environment: the raw materials (PTA and MEG) used in the production process are sourced from fossil fuels, contributing to the depletion of Earth’s natural resources and contributing to global CO2 emissions. Additionally, polyester products can take hundreds of years to decompose, which means they are not biodegradable and cause microfibers to enter our environment.

Despite the bad press and numerous sustainability-related concerns, the polyester market continues to expand. In 2020, the global polyester fiber market size was valued at over 91 billion USD, and it is expected to reach 165 billion USD in 2027. This growth is mainly attributed to polyester’s diverse range of applications and superior properties compared with other synthetic fibers. It is fuelled by the rapidly growing e-commerce industry and our daily habits – quickly changing fashion trends, urbanization, and growing living standards.

Having all this knowledge, the questions arise: Is there a way to keep benefiting from polyester’s great properties without negatively impacting the environment? Can polyester be sustainable? Can this fiber be recycled?

Polyester recycling

Let’s put it out there: in 2021 alone, over 60 million tonnes of polyester fiber were produced. With a CAGR of 7.8%, we can expect this number to nearly double within the next 5-7 years.

The good news is that polyester is 100% recyclable and can be sustainable. The bad news is that polyester recycling is far more complicated than recycling of PET bottles and currently, there is no scaled-up commercial solution to create a circular economy for polyester textiles.

“Bottle to textile”
Today, you’ll see many polyester products, such as clothing and backpacks, boasting that they are made from recycled materials - this is a great first step! However, most of these recycled polyester products come from recycled bottles, not textiles. This is because the existing mechanical recycling solutions can only process very clean PET plastic waste streams such as water bottles, and they are unable to process complex textiles made with blended materials, dyes, and garments made with buttons and zips, etc. The required collection, sorting, and separation would be too costly and complicated for textiles.

“Textile to textile”
Most polyester-based textiles are quite complex; often their composition is not 100% PET, and therefore they cannot be recycled with existing mechanical recycling methods. Take clothing as an example: polyester fibers are mixed with cotton, nylon, leather, and many other materials. That makes it impossible or not economically viable to recycle with traditional methods, resulting in a huge amount of post-industrial and post-consumer polyester waste ending up in landfills or incinerated, supporting its linear economy.

While it’s great that we’re able to turn PET plastic bottle waste into new polyester fibers, we need a scalable way to turn textiles back into textiles for a truly circular and sustainable economy. To tackle textile waste recycling, new technologies need to be implemented on a large scale.

Textile recycling

While the sustainability of polyester blends in the textile industry is a challenge, complementary recycling solutions are available, and polyester-based textile recycling is no longer an unattainable dream.

At DePoly, we can recycle polyester back to its original raw materials, PTA and MEG; this allows the production of new products from polyester waste instead of fossil feedstocks, all without sacrificing quality.
Polyester blended with other materials? No problem! Our technology specifically targets the polyester components and allows us to separate and recover all other materials, so that they can be reused or recycled as well. All that with our green chemical recycling technology that does not require any heat, pre-washing, or pre-sorting PET-waste streams.

Learn more about our process that is already being used to make polyester truly sustainable or contact us to find out more!

Category / Plastic world
Published / January 31, 2023
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