Recycled Polyester: Is RPET sustainable?
Plastic waste is a runaway train, and so far nobody has even tried to pull the brake. But we have no shortage of innovative thinkers running behind the train trying to clean up the mess left behind by our unstoppable consumerism.
PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) is the plastic that water and soft drink bottles are made from. This is plastic made from crude oil and natural gas. When chemically processed, old bottles made from this material can be transformed into polyester yarn, one of the most commonly used fabrics in fashion. This has led to the practice of rescuing would-be plastic waste from an eternity in landfill and recycling it into wearable fabric, known as rPET (recycled PET). Patagonia has been doing this since the early 90s, but the recycling trend has really taken off over the last few years as the severity of plastic pollution has been realised.
This fabric is increasingly popular and touted as an environmental solution to the trash problem. We can now buy recycled underwear, activewear, swimwear, outerwear and more. It’s ingenuity reduces the amount of primary resources that need to be pulled out of the ground for our increasing consumption of new clothing, and diverts trash from overflowing landfills that are toxic to the environment around them. Recycling existing PET reduces the carbon emissions and energy required to process the plastic into a wearable fibre.
So it’s an all-round winning idea, right? If only anything was that easy!
Even though rPET is indisputably a more sustainable option than virgin PET, the fabric is now receiving pushback from conscious consumers that don’t want to purchase plastic in this way anymore.
The criticism of rPET is happening for some pretty important reasons:
Recycling still uses lots of resources
It still normalises plastic materials and encourages the production of new clothing
After its second life the plastic is still sent to landfill
Brands selling rPET are being accused of misleading customers into supporting a practice they think is greener than it really is
I don’t share the opinion that brands selling rPET are intentionally greenwashing. Some of the most amazing, dedicated change-makers I’ve heard of in the fashion space use rPET in their brands. I still support their efforts entirely.
The reality is just that plastic microfibres were only discovered for the first time in 2011 by an Irish Research Council team that were analysing beach trash. It wasn’t until 2016 that Patagonia funded a small study into microfibre shedding from their clothing, 23 years after they started using rPET, and it took a while for the news to make its way into mainstream consciousness.
This is a cutting-edge issue that well-entrenched ethical fashion brands had previously been unaware of, and now is the time we are starting to see these brands pivot and adapt to the new information. We’re not on a witch hunt against brands that use rPET because this is something we’re all learning and growing into together.
But, there’s still a big divide in opinion on whether we can call it “ethical” or “sustainable” to use rPEt.
The controversy can be linked back to the opinion that any positive change is a good step forward, versus the opinion that half-hearted attempts at sustainability are essentially just greenwashing. Let’s talk about why many are choosing to boycott rPET, and I’ll share my thoughts below.
Recycling is necessary and should absolutely continue. At the same time that there are movements to decrease our reliance on recycling, there is the movement to increase the rate of recycling to A) Tackle the incoming waste of a growing population, and B) Tackle the waste we’ve produced already over the past century.
For recycling to work, consumers must purchase recycled goods. Yet only 9% of all plastic made since 1950 has ever been recycled, so it can be dangerous to fall into complacency that producing plastic is OK if recycling makes it a sustainable option now. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that in recent years 95% of plastic packaging was lost to waste after a short lifespan, which was losing $80-$120 billion from the economy on throwing away those resources. (Fantastic business for Big Plastics, right?)
Given that plastic is down-cycled every time its repurposed until it becomes landfill, plastic really needs to be removed from a circular economy and not entrenched into it further. Recycling is necessary but isn’t a viable solution to the scale of our plastic problem. We can’t recycle our way out of this mess. The solution lies with companies and governments restricting plastic production to necessity only, such as for sterilised medical packaging.
So even if we use recycled plastic to offset the production of new plastic as much as possible, the ultimate goal should still be to eradicate plastic from our supply chains entirely.
But let’s get into the specifics.
The most immediately concerning issue is the unimpeded release of plastic microfibres into our waterways through synthetic clothing. Fibres made from plastic are prone to shedding micro pieces of plastic in the laundry, when little pieces detach from the garment under duress. These are pieces of plastic too small to be filtered out (wastewater treatment plants can catch 65-92%), and that now live in our waterways and household tap water. Each garment can shed thousands of micro pieces of plastic per wash.
The stats on microfibre shedding lead us to believe the only solution is an immediate boycott of all synthetic clothing fibres. To avoid repeating all the details, read my post recent explaining microfibre pollution here:
There seems to be no firm evidence on whether rPET sheds more or less than virgin PET, but the consensus is that quality matters when buying any polyester clothing. The thicker and higher-quality you perceive the fabric of the garment, the less the fibres will shed in the wash. More tips on how to reduce microfibre shedding in my blog post linked above.
Recycling Isn’t Green
Recycling uses a lot of harsh chemical and mechanical processes. Recycled plastic uses less resources and produces less CO2, but the process of recycling it is so toxic that in 2018 China banned its recycling imports, citing it was just too polluting to continue. After exporting this environmental hazard overseas, the problem has now fallen back on the laps of Aussies and suddenly the idea of recycling doesn’t seem as much of an easy way out anymore. Perhaps it isn’t a miracle solution, after all.
Every kilogram of virgin PET requires 2kg of oil to produce, and releases 6kg of CO2. To convert PET bottles into rPET fabric, the material must first be melted down which releases toxic organic compounds that are dangerous to the factory workers, as well as surrounding plant and animal life. Then, it must be processed and spun into the fibre we know it as. So recycled PET still produces 3.5kg of CO2 per kilogram of plastic, or roughly 40% less carbon emissions. This is before it is even shipped off to the clothing industry, to be processed and dyed in their often inefficient manufacturing systems.
It’s estimated recycled PET requires 75% less energy to make, but even by reducing energy use to 25% and CO2 output to 60%, we haven’t necessarily created a sustainable material that would be particularly valuable in a circular economy. When compared to virgin PET it’s a clear step-up, but when compared to more natural materials these numbers look much more unreasonable.
Each time the material is recycled it loses quality, so plastic bottles converted into clothing can only be down-cycled once before the final product is trash. If the owner of the recycled plastic item of clothing wore that item for less than 30 wears, the energy output to recycle the plastic would still be greater than the energy saved. (Going off traditional estimates of the #30wearschallenge.)
Many countries don’t have recycling or adequate waste management facilities. These plastic bottles that are sold around the world may be recycled in one country, but are thrown straight into the waterways of another country (*cough* Micronesia). Producing plastic at the same rate and recycling a tiny percentage of it is not a solution to tackling the problem if the companies find this cycle profitable. When the same companies we boycott for their wasteful production go on to create the recycled plastics… Is this now greenwashing?
Coca Cola earn royalties from products that have been made from their virgin plastic bottles, e.g. Ekocycle sheets and Emeco furniture. They’ve been doing this long before we learned about microfibres or the true scale of plastic pollution. This means that with the rise in interest, creating virgin plastic has become even more profitable for these companies, because the materials they make now make multiple sales. They are not turning the old bottles into new bottles to reduce plastic, they are expanding their profit per kg of plastic sold while continuing to produce it at the same rate as before. Where’s the incentive for a multinational corporation like Coca Cola to fight plastic pollution? Where’s the solid evidence that supporting rPET is decreasing global plastic production?
Even if rPET reduces some of the impact of PET and salvages a lot of waste, is using either of these materials something we can call “sustainable” this late in the race to beat climate change?
The personal opinion I’ve carried for a while is that while there is so much plastic waste in the world, we should absolutely be recycling it into something new. I just don’t believe that answer is washable clothing with its damage to the oceans, as explained in my microfibres post.
If you’re going to be making clothes out of polyester then recycled polyester is absolutely a positive step forward. We haven’t had enough time to develop new technologies to replace synthetics in a lot of activewear just yet. But as we evolve and leave synthetic clothing behind, perhaps plastics should instead be repurposed into products with a hard texture to avoid microfibre shedding.
Preferably into a product that is longer-lasting and will extend the life of the plastic considerably before it ends up in landfill. The answers lie in using plastics for road surfacing, building materials, furniture, prosthetic limbs, medication packaging, etc. Even options such as handbags and yoga mats that don’t go into the washing machine so won’t shed microfibres are a positive way to salvage resources, as long as the rest of the product is constructed thoughtfully and the items are loved and used for a long time.
We don’t want to create more waste just to make use of the waste we already have. So cheap, temporary rPET items can’t truly be a solution. Plastic leggings you toss out haven’t eradicated plastic trash. Choosing recycled plastic toothbrushes or razors isn’t necessarily a better option than bamboo or steel, either. If we want to reduce plastic pollution, we need to build products that last and actually remove the plastic from the waste cycle.
If you already own polyester clothing, either virgin or recycled, that’s OK. I do too. Don’t we all? But here’s what we need to remember:
We should use the item until the end of its natural life, consuming more resources to replace it isn’t the solution
While holding onto this item for the length of if its life you can wash it less, preferably with a front load washer if hand-washing is out of the question, because you’d be surprised how far a cold rinse-off can go instead of a full hot water cycle
It’s best to invest in a microfibre filter, I use Biome’s White Magic laundry bag and think if we all bought one less item of clothing per year to afford this $23 bag instead, that would make a pretty big impact!
We shouldn’t be afraid to purchase new rPET if it is an item that isn’t machine-washed, such as the lining of a vegan leather handbag
So, what’s your conclusion? Can we call rPET sustainable or not? Which camp are you in that any progress is good progress versus “that’s just greenwashing”? Comment and let me know! This is such a new issue and it’s really important we get the conversation going so we can tilt the problem towards a solution.