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The Good and (Really) Bad About Recycled Polyester

Many sports manufacturers love to build their sustainability story on recycled polyester. Unfortunately, this material is far away from being a sustainable solution, especially in the apparel department.

First of all, let’s state the pros and cons of polyester. It’s a very strong, yet light material, that doesn’t wrinkle, nor absorb moisture. Because it can be flexibly formed, it’s the perfect material for developing highly functional products – such as jerseys, bags or shoe uppers. Furthermore, because of its popularity (two-thirds of all textiles worldwide are made of it), it’s also very cheap. Thus, so far, there is no material matching all these qualities.

On the other side, polyester is made from crude oil. Not only is petroleum a non-renewable resource, its production is very energy-intensive. The dyeing process also demands high temperatures, and harmful petrochemicals are being released into air, soil and water. And because regular polyester needs over 700 years to decompose, it’s also polluting landfills and oceans all-around this planet.

Luckily, one might think, polyester can be recycled quite well. Creating rPET polyester is even less polluting then producing its virgin version – generating almost 80% fewer carbon emissions. Therefore many companies, first and foremost sports brands relying on its functionality, have started to promote recycled polyester as the silver bullet for solving their problematic ecological impact. Unfortunately, recycled polyester is far away from being a green solution – at least not generally.

First of all, there is BPA (Bisphenol A), a chemical that can enter our body via skin and is said to have toxic effects. But the even bigger issue might be microfibers. When washing polyester textiles, plastic particles measuring less than 5 millimeters in length get loose, slip past conventional filters and end up in our water system. There they are consumed by fish and – as we like to eat fish – by humans as well.

And there is one more reason, why recycled polyester is problematic. It’s simply no real solution, just a transitional one. We’re still using a petroleum-based product. And because recycled polyester garments are mostly made from recycled PET bottles, not old garments, there are still millions of tons of polyester textiles turning into pure un-recyclable and un-degradable plastic waste.

Many progressive brands have started to look for competitive solutions, producing their products from alternative materials, such as bio-plastics made from corn (which then again has its GMA-challenges to master). Other options are hemp, sugar cane or lyocell made from wood.

So how to sum things up?

1. Recycled polyester is “better” than virgin polyester. But it’s not a (literally) sustainable solution, more a transitional one.

2. Polyester (including the recycled one) is cheap and provides an unmatched function to sportswear. But mainly due to microfibers being released into our water system, it is an environmentally problematic material.

3. If possible, avoid recycled polyester products that have to be washed regularly, like clothes or accessories you wear on your skin.

4. However, recycled polyester is a temporarily reasonable material for other products such as rain jackets, bags or shoes that do not end up in your washing machine. This way, plastic waste can get a second life.

So yes, brands presenting themselves as sustainable only (!) because they are switching their garments from virgin to recycled polyester are just running a cheap greenwashing campaign. Instead, they should focus on implementing and developing bio-degradable solutions that can really substitute polyester one day.

Picture: @chaiyrapruek2520, freepik

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