Is Recycled Polyester Better Than Virgin Polyester?

plastic bottles used to make rPET

Polyester fabrics have been around since the early 1940s; invented by a couple of British scientists because of the difficulty in obtaining cotton during World War 11. Polyester fabric was never really considered an ideal or sustainable textile option. Polyester is made from PET (polyethylene terephthalate), and the raw materials for PET come from crude oil and natural gas. PET is the most common plastic in the world. Fast forward to the present, and polyester alone comprises 60% of the garments lining retail shelves. Polyester is now the most used fiber in the apparel industry. A statistic I find alarming for its negative impact on the environment, and its less than stellar characteristics. 

There is a new trend in the “eco-fashion industry”, recycled polyester or rPET. Companies have increased their use of rPET, claiming it’s a sustainable option. Sounds like a good idea, but is it?

What is recycled polyester?

rPET is made by melting down existing plastic and spinning this mixture into new polyester fiber. It’s commonly made from plastic bottles and containers thrown away by consumers.

Pros of rPET

  • Recycled polyester gives a second life to plastic headed for the landfill. At the moment it’s the best solution for a bad situation.
  • The properties and performance of rPET is as good as the quality of virgin polyester. 
  • The production of rPET requires less energy than the manufacture of virgin polyester, and lessens our dependence on petroleum as the raw material.

Cons of rPET

  • Recycling has its limitations. Most of our clothing is made from blended fabrics consisting of polyester and other fibers. The technology required to separate the fibers from blends is still in the early stages, and accounts for only 1% of unwanted garments. In addition, certain fabric finishes makes them non-recyclable. 
  • There are two ways to recycle polyester, mechanically and chemically. Mechanical processing is cheaper and more commonly done, but the resulting fiber can lose strength, and ultimately has to be mixed with virgin polyester.
  • The processes involved in making rPET still have an impact on the environment. They tend to require re-dyeing because of color inconsistencies. Dyes required for polyester fibers are not eco-friendly. rPET leeches toxic substances, in particular antimony. rPET requires less energy, but still requires more energy than is needed to produce hemp, wool, organic and regular cotton.
  • A good share of the microplastics in waterways come from synthetic fibers. Microplastics from rPET are released into the environment as for virgin polyester. Recycled polyester is still a plastic.
  • There is the belief that everything you throw away can be recycled. Just by the fact that manufacturers are able to recycle polyester, people will have no problem in continuing to consume disposable plastic goods. As it stands, only a small percentage of all plastics are actually recycled.

I think the rise in the use of rPET is just another example of greenwashing by companies, misleading claims about the environmental benefits of recycled polyester. Using rPET is only a short term solution. No matter which way you cut it, plastic is still plastic and is going to end up in the landfill, decomposing at an incredibly slow rate, and invading our waterways. Polyester in whatever form will always leave a footprint. We will never be totally rid of synthetic fibers and fabrics, as they have benefits. But the best solution is to decrease them significantly from our clothing, including recycled polyester.