Why, Exactly, Is Polyester So Bad for the Environment? - Ecocult (2022)

Updated in January 2021

Say the word polyester around a sustainable fashion advocate, and watch them recoil in disgust. Use a polyester-cotton blend in your eco-conscious collection, and you’ll be accused of greenwashing.

You can’t deny polyester has come a long way from the scratchy suits of the 1970s. It’s been refined and tweaked until you can get all sorts of textile doppelgangers out of it, from fake silk to fake suede and faux fur. It’s washable and hardy. It’s a performance textile, used in activewear, athleisure, and outdoor gear (yes, even high-end, eco-friendly outdoor gear). Of course, it’s also used in cheap, tacky, toxic clothing from dubious brands that advertise on Facebook. My point is: Polyester comes in so many forms and prices and uses, it’s hard to avoid it.

But eco fashion influencers try, throwing the word polyesteraround as if it’s an epithet. Why do environmentalists and ethical influencers have such strong feelings about polyester? And is their ire warranted? Let’s go through their reasons.

1. Polyester encourages fashion overproduction and waste.

Polyester made up 52% of global fiber production in 2018, at 55 million metric tons produced annually, according to a presentation by Oerlikon at ITMA 2019 (cited in Textile Exchange’s 2019 Preferred Fiber and Materials Report). Cotton comes in a distant second.

Brands have gravitated toward polyester because it’s often a more affordable and easier textile to get ahold of than natural fibers. You just put in an order with one of the thousands of synthetic fiber mills around the world, it’s produced and then shipped to the cut-and-sew factory. That’s opposed to cotton, which can go through wild price swings due to drought, natural disasters, and political crises. Or animal fibers, which are difficult to standardize and industrialize without animal abuse being baked into the system.

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You could say that polyester has been enabling the overproduction of fashion, in fact. Before polyester was discovered in the 1940s, our textile production was limited by the amount of land devoted to growing cotton and linen, or raising sheep and silkworms. Being able to produce polyester in a factory decoupled production from land area. According to McKinsey, between 2000 and 2014, global clothing production doubled. Not coincidentally, 2002 is when demand for polyester surpassed cotton. Most of that increased fashion production has been made possible by polyester.

2. Polyester is made from fossil fuels.

What you call polyester is technically polyethylene terephthalate or PET plastic molded into filaments that are then woven into fabric. It’s made in a chemical reaction between ethylene glycol and therephthalic acid, and these chemicals are derived from fossil fuels, air, and water.

In a perfect future world, where we’ve decarbonized our global economy and we’re putting carbon back in the ground instead of pulling it out, it would be hard to justify polyester, because it relies on pulling more oil and coal out of the ground.

3. Polyester can’t be recycled, yet.

Yes, there’s one Japanese factory operating at a commercial scale that will recycle their own polyester from Patagonia into fresh polyester. The rest of the global output of polyester can’t be recycled at a cost that is acceptable to fashion brands using today’s technology. Used textiles of pure cotton have value since it can be mechanically recycled, but as soon as you add polyester, recycling becomes much more complicated—the polyester must be kept from contaminating the salvaged cotton fibers. While there is some promising technology that could melt polyester out of polyester-cotton blends for recycling, we’re still far from building an efficient global system for collecting and sorting used polyester for recycling. As a result, pretty much all polyester and polyester-blend scraps in post-consumer fashion waste are going into the landfill, being incinerated, or washing into the ocean. Even if we do start collecting and recycling polyester, the PET degrades a little more during each loop. It can’t be recycled forever.

The story is a little better for polyester made from recycled PET plastic bottles, which many fashion companies have eagerly adopted for part or all of their polyester products. According to Textile Exchange, the market share of recycled polyester increased from around 8% of global polyester production in 2008 to around 16% in 2017. Unfortunately, when China stopped taking the world’s trash for recycling, the price of recycled polyester went up and its share of the market declined to 13% a year later. As long as petroleum is easier and cheaper to obtain than plastic bottles, recycled polyester will remain a niche product.

4. Polyester is not biodegradable, and can shed toxic microfibers.

While cotton, wool, and silk will completely biodegrade within a few months to a few years, as a plastic, polyester will take hundreds of years to completely biodegrade. Before that happens, however, it will degrade into little microfibers. These microfibers slough off certain types of clothes into the air when we are wearing them, and flow into our waterways from our washing machines. Recent research estimates that globally, “176,500 metric tons of synthetic microfibers — chiefly polyester and nylon — are released every year.”

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And we’re eating, breathing, and drinking them. It’s estimated we ingest a credit card’s worth of microplastic every week. This is dangerous for us and aquatic life, because these microfibers can attract carcinogenic toxins. These are carried into our bodies through the ingestion of microfibers, which can then lodge in our gut.

5. Polyester gets smelly.

I’ve spoken to a textile researcher about how different fibers interact with our bodies, and polyester is not great in that regard. While it’s billed as “sweat-wicking,” meaning it doesn’t get heavy when it gets wet like cotton does, after a few wears and washes, you’ll start to notice that it’s hanging on to your B.O. Or, even more embarrassing, that after a few hours in your synthetic yoga pants, your crotch has become quite aromatic.

For that reason, while I have some polyester workout clothes, I try to stick with cotton and merino wool undies and leggings, especially when I travel. This is anecdotal, but I just get itchy in polyester pants after a few hours. And ever since I stopped wearing synthetic yoga pants for more than the hour it takes to workout, I’ve noticed that my private parts are much happier for it. This isn’t just a lady thing, either. Once my husband got rid of his polyester socks and switched to merino wool (on the advice of his dermatologist) his feet became much happier, too.

Don’t Believe Everything You Hear About Polyester, However

There are a couple of myths around polyester that eco and wellness bloggers tend to promulgate, and while they sound scary, they’re not actually true.

1. Polyester is not harmful to your health.

I’ve been told by some well-meaning designers and bloggers that polyester is carcinogenic. Pure polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is not toxic at all. It’s when it is blended with other compounds, dyed, scoured, and finished that it starts accumulating chemical compounds that can affect your health, or the health of mill and garment workers. But this is true for all fabrics — organic silk could be toxic after it goes through the entire supply chain. There’s also a rumor that polyester made from recycled plastic bottles is toxic, in that it has endocrine disruptors that mess with your hormones. That’s not true either. I go into it here, but the short explanation is that to create polyester, you need pure, uncontaminated PET bottles.

2. Polyester production isn’t always more polluting than other fibers.

The other myth is that polyester always uses more water and creates more greenhouse gas emissions than natural fibers.

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According to the Higg Index, polyester is better than cotton in some ways, and worse in others. It has a lower negative impact when it comes to water pollution, water scarcity, and chemistry. It has a higher negative impact when it comes to global warming and fossil fuel usage, but not by much. And for global warming specifically, it looks better than almost every other natural fabric, including hemp, linen, wool and silk. When it comes specifically to fossil fuel use, polyester is worse than almost every natural fabric, except for silk.

Now, Higg has its problems, so take that all with a grain of salt. One fair criticism is that polyester’s impacts are measured starting at the base chemicals, instead of at the extraction of fossil fuels, while cotton’s impact is measured at the point where the seed is planted. And other research puts the global warming impact of polyester higher than cotton.

In short, polyester is just average when it comes to environmental impacts during its production, and it depends a lot on how it’s made, rather than the polyester itself.

3. Polyester doesn’t fall apart quickly.

Now, I know where this comes from. A lot of super-cheap fashion is made of polyester. So when you buy something from Fashion Nova and it falls apart after three wears, you want to attribute that to the fabric. But that’s a problem with the seams and construction of the garment, not the textile itself. Textile researchers know that blending polyester in with a natural fiber can actually make a garment last longer, as Sandra Roos has pointed out to me. And a lot of expensive performance gear, which needs to last a long time under extreme conditions, is made using polyester. So that claim doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

4. Some polyester textiles shed barely any microfibers.

Whenever we’re talking about polyester, in the next breath some rather scary figures about microfiber pollution are mentioned. (See above.) However, some polyester fashion is rather innocent of the charge.

“I think there are some nuances here that are really important,” Peter Ross, VP at the non-profit Ocean Wise, told WBUR in 2019. “Some polyester textiles shed a great deal and others do not… We know that polyester fleece sweaters can shed millions of fibers in a single load of laundry whereas some performance gear that is tightly woven, but it’s equally made up of 100 percent polyester, might not shed much at all.”

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Textile consultant Mick Siddons explained it to me further. “In principle, if a continuous filament is not cropped, brushed, or abraded, it is physically impossible for it to shed.” He’s talking about fleece, faux fur, and other fluffy types of polyester fabric, while smooth polyester fabrics like those you find in yoga pants and performance jackets don’t have microfibers to shed. “Each fiber really is endless and the fibers are air tangled every few millimeters to stop the filaments separating. Even if the filament is broken it cannot come out unless it is broken again between mingle areas,” he says.

So you should only really worry about washing and wearing fluffy polyester clothing. Enjoy your yoga pants!

Conclusion

Yeah, polyester is not great. It’s part of a make-take-throwaway culture. It’s made from fossil fuels. It doesn’t biodegrade, and isn’t recycled. And it’s uncomfortable, especially for the ladies.

But sometimes, it’s the best choice for a high-quality or performance garment. If you’re a purist trying to get plastic completely out of your wardrobe, here are some tips to do so. But my recommendation is to be open to polyester when it’s warranted, and avoid it when a natural fiber alternative is available.

This post originally linked out to an old article from another blog. As it’s been five years, we decided it needed a complete refresh. The title and URL are the same, the contents are all new.

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FAQs

Why are polyesters not biodegradable? ›

It's not considered biodegradable because most polyester takes from 20 to 40 years to break down, depending on the environment it's in.

What are the worst fabrics for the environment? ›

The Least Sustainable Fabrics
  • 1) Polyester. A variety of products can be made from forms of polyester: t-shirts, blankets, rope, conveyor belts, and bottles. ...
  • 2) Acrylic. ...
  • 3) Cotton (Conventional) ...
  • 4) Rayon (aka Viscose) ...
  • 5) Nylon. ...
  • 1) Organic or Recycled Cotton. ...
  • 2) Organic Hemp. ...
  • 3) Organic Linen.
4 Jun 2020

Is polyester a pollutant? ›

Polyester is not biodegradable, and can shed toxic microfibers. While cotton, wool, and silk will completely biodegrade within a few months to a few years, as a plastic, polyester will take hundreds of years to completely biodegrade. Before that happens, however, it will degrade into little microfibers.

How long does polyester take to decompose? ›

Depending on manufacture quality, fabric thickness and material compositions, a polyester shirt is thought to take anywhere from 20-200 years to decompose (Cobbing and Vicare 2016; Fletcher 2014; Chen and Burns 2006).

What is wrong with polyester? ›

Polyester is advertised as being wrinkle-free, but due to the harsh chemicals that go into making these clothes, polyester is not only hard but can be disastrous on sensitive skin. The chemicals can be rough on skin and lead to rashes.

What is better cotton or polyester? ›

Polyester is stronger than cotton, due to its chemical makeup, with a greater ability to stretch. Polyester is hydrophobic and for this reason, fabrics made with polyester don't absorb perspiration. Cotton on the other hand absorbs moisture. Cotton is more breathable than polyester and also extremely hypoallergenic.

What can I use instead of polyester? ›

So, here are some ethical alternatives to polyester that youcan opt for instead.
  • Organic or Recycled Cotton. Conventional cotton is a natural fiber that can be harvested from plants, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily sustainable. ...
  • Natural Hemp. ...
  • Tencel. ...
  • Organic Linen. ...
  • Peace or Ahimsa Silk.

Is cotton more sustainable than polyester? ›

I concluded recycled polyester fiber, produced from existing polyester products, is more sustainable than cotton fiber. Since the mid-1980s, cotton and polyester fiber production have grown dramatically, so that today, these two fibers account for more than 80% of all fiber production worldwide.

Is 100% polyester environmentally friendly? ›

Petrochemical origins and impacts

As an oil-based plastic, polyester does not biodegrade like natural fibres. Rather it stays in landfills for several decades at least – and potentially for hundreds of years.

Can polyester be eco friendly? ›

Polyester has often been considered more sustainable from a consumer care standpoint as polyester garments last a really long time and require less water, energy and heat for washing. But because the fabric is designed to last for so long, it takes more than 200 years to decompose.

How much pollution does polyester cause? ›

Plastic pollution

A study by Plymouth University discovered that one wash could release 4,000 microfibres per gram of fabric, but also up to 400 microfibers are shed simply by wearing polyester clothing. These contribute to 31% of plastic pollution in the ocean and cause substantial harm to marine life.

Is polyester toxic to humans? ›

Heat releases Polyester chemicals like Antimony oxide Sb2O3, which is used to make Polyester and is a known carcinogen. With body heat, it is partially dissolved with sweat and absorbed by the skin. It can cause heart, liver, kidney and skin ailments.

Why are so many clothes made of polyester? ›

Polyester is the most widely-used clothing fiber in the world, as it's inexpensive and doesn't crease. Recycled bottles are now being used to produce synthetic materials and is as cheap as virgin polyester, according to Roger Lee, CEO of clothing manufacturer TAL Apparel.

Is there plastic in polyester? ›

The term 'polyester' describes a category of polymers produced by mixing ethylene glycol (derived from petroleum) and terephthalic acid. Chemical jargon aside, polyester is a common plastic with a wide range of applications extending beyond the fashion industry.

What is 100% polyester mean? ›

This means that fabrics, which are 100% polyester, can be given permanent pleats and decorative shapes and patterns can be laser-cut into them. They are also highly stain-resistant, so great for cleaning. You might notice that when a garment is 100% polyester, that is it prone to static build-up.

Is polyester a carcinogen? ›

If the structure of a chromosome alters disease can occur. An example of a harmful chemical is polyester, which is known to be carcinogenic (cancer causing). Therefore, using a polyester toxicity study involving genetic alterations to research the harmful effects of this substance is essential.

Why do expensive brands use polyester? ›

The reason polyester is so popular is because it's so affordable. If you're looking for frugal fashion, this will be one of the leading textiles. Most lower-priced clothing is made from polyester or polyester blends. However, now I'm even seeing expensive clothing made from it as well!

Is polyester vegan friendly? ›

Yes, polyester is generally vegan on its own, however when it's used in garments that also contain animal-derived products like leather, fur, wool or cashmere then the piece of clothing will no longer be vegan-friendly.

Should I wear polyester? ›

Polyester is your fabric of choice superior fabric if you are looking for a quick dry, durable fabric, then polyester is a good fabric for you. It's one of the best fabrics for athletic wear or when you want to keep cool on a hot and sunny day.

Is 100 percent polyester breathable? ›

Polyester is a popular fabric used in workout clothing and activewear because it is lightweight and breathable. But is polyester breathable, really? Yes – polyester is breathable; it's lightweight and water-repellent so moisture on your skin evaporates instead of soaking into the fabric.

What is the most ethical fabric? ›

10 sustainable and eco-friendly fabrics
  • Organic hemp. Hemp is a versatile plant that can be used to make anything from food and building materials to cosmetics and fabrics. ...
  • Organic cotton. ...
  • Organic linen. ...
  • Recycled fabrics. ...
  • Lyocell. ...
  • Econyl. ...
  • Piñatex. ...
  • Qmonos.
13 Oct 2021

What material is better than polyester? ›

Nylon is more durable and strong than polyester, that's why it's a popular material for ropes.

Why is cotton good for the environment? ›

Grown using materials and methods that lower its impact on the environment, organic cotton is a fantastic sustainable alternative to commonly-grown crops. These eco-friendly production systems focus on maintaining soil fertility and don't involve any toxic pesticides, synthetic fertilisers and harmful chemicals.

Is 100 percent cotton environmentally friendly? ›

Although it is a natural fiber, conventional cotton is far from environmentally friendly. Cotton is mainly produced in dry and warm regions, but it needs a lot of water to grow. In some places, like India, inefficient water use means that up to 20,000 liters of water are needed to produce 1kg of cotton.

Is cotton less toxic than polyester? ›

The most common beddings are made of polyester/ cotton blends or all polyester. Synthetic fabrics emit low levels of chemicals throughout their life. Bedding of 100% cotton, hemp, linen or wool is least toxic.

Is silk a sustainable fabric? ›

Generally speaking, silk is considered a more sustainable fiber. It is a renewable resource, can biodegrade, and uses less water, chemicals, and energy than many other fibers. That said, problems can arise with chemical use, animal rights, high energy input, and labor practices.

Why are polyesters biodegradable but not Polyalkenes? ›

Polyalkenes are chemically inert and non-biodegradable. Polyesters and polyamides can be broken down by hydrolysis and are biodegradable.

Why are polyesters considered to be biodegradable polymers? ›

Aliphatic polyesters play a predominant role as (bio)degradable polymers due to the potentially hydrolysable ester bonds and relatively short aliphatic chains present in the macromolecules and are the most representative examples of environmentally relevant polymeric materials [5,6].

Is polyester fabric biodegradable? ›

Next comes the polyester; which is a synthetic one and not biodegradable. Hence the disposal of synthetic polymers likes nylon, PET, poly acrylic, etc, has to be taken into account which is not biodegradable and affects the environment badly. Recycling is the most feasible approach to reduce the solid waste.

Is polyester easily biodegradable? ›

Not Biodegradable

According to CO, “As an oil-based plastic, polyester does not biodegrade like natural fibers. Rather it stays in landfill for several decades at least – and potentially for hundreds of years.”

How long does it take for polymers to decompose? ›

Why? Unlike organic materials, like food and paper products, petroleum-based plastics don't decompose quickly. Many sources estimate it can take 500-1,000 years for plastic to decompose in a landfill.

Are polyamides stronger than polyesters? ›

These qualities make polyester a great choice for clothing that will receive a lot of wear and tear. Polyamide shares many of the qualities of polyester as far as durability is concerned. But overall, it is slightly more durable. This is because it has a high resistance to abrasion.

How do you dispose of polymers? ›

Waste polymers can be incinerated . This involves combustion at very high temperatures. Incineration releases a lot of energy which can be used to heat homes or to generate electricity.

Is polyester a sustainable material? ›

As an oil-based plastic, polyester does not biodegrade like natural fibres. Rather it stays in landfills for several decades at least – and potentially for hundreds of years.

Can polyester be recycled? ›

It has lower energy impacts during the washing and cleaning phase and is also completely recyclable at the end of its life. Polyester textile recycling has been developed using the clear plastic water bottles, or PET as the raw material, a source of plastic that would otherwise go into landfill.

How do you make polyester biodegradable? ›

There are several different ways of producing biodegradable polyester and polyamide, but the most common method is a reaction utilizing diacid or acid anhydride, which are organic compounds that allow the resulting polymers to be biodegradable.

Is polyester vegan friendly? ›

Yes, polyester is generally vegan on its own, however when it's used in garments that also contain animal-derived products like leather, fur, wool or cashmere then the piece of clothing will no longer be vegan-friendly.

What can I use instead of polyester? ›

So, here are some ethical alternatives to polyester that youcan opt for instead.
  • Organic or Recycled Cotton. Conventional cotton is a natural fiber that can be harvested from plants, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily sustainable. ...
  • Natural Hemp. ...
  • Tencel. ...
  • Organic Linen. ...
  • Peace or Ahimsa Silk.

Is cotton more environmentally friendly than polyester? ›

I concluded recycled polyester fiber, produced from existing polyester products, is more sustainable than cotton fiber. Since the mid-1980s, cotton and polyester fiber production have grown dramatically, so that today, these two fibers account for more than 80% of all fiber production worldwide.

Why is cotton better than polyester environment? ›

Cotton irrigation is a major contributor in the depletion of the Aral Sea. Polyester requires less water but is more energy intensive requiring wood and oil to produce, thereby contributing to global warming from harmful greenhouse gases.

Why are so many clothes made of polyester? ›

Polyester is the most widely-used clothing fiber in the world, as it's inexpensive and doesn't crease. Recycled bottles are now being used to produce synthetic materials and is as cheap as virgin polyester, according to Roger Lee, CEO of clothing manufacturer TAL Apparel.

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