Polyester is everywhere. Walk into any fast fashion brand and more likely than not, most garments will be at least part polyester. It is the United States’ fastest-growing fiber and is incredibly versatile. But polyester is also made from coal and petroleum, which basically just means plastic – which is one reason why it’s so cheap. But just cheap isn’t good enough anymore. In a world desperate to heal itself from climate change, how bad is polyester

Spoiler alert: it’s pretty bad. 

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Carbon Footprint 

Polyester’s carbon footprint is significant. The combination of the petroleum and energy needed to make the fiber is terribly bad for the environment. In 2015, polyester and similar synthetic fibers used 21,000 Olympic swimming pools’ worth of oil. That is incomprehensible! When it comes to greenhouse gases, global polyester production emits three times as many gases as cotton does. 

The waste created from polyester is, unsurprisingly, also quite toxic. Polyester wastewater releases harmful chemicals like antimony, cobalt, manganese salts, sodium bromide, and titanium dioxide. These substances are not well contained and end up in the water and environment harming innocent wildlife. Antimony, for example, when exposed to animals, has been found to have negative effects on the lungs, cardiovascular system, and liver. 

Microplastics 

Microplastics are defined as tiny pieces of plastic smaller than 5 millimeters. It is impossible to talk about polyester without talking about microplastics. When a polyester garment is washed, Microplastic fibers are released from the clothing. Imagine a shirt shedding a small amount of plastic every time it’s chucked into the washing machine. That plastic cannot be collected and avoiding the release of microplastics from these garments is nearly impossible. A study found polyester released microplastic “regardless of wash condition or fabric structure”

Although these plastics are so small they seem almost insignificant, they are anything but that. Microplastics spread like wildfire and are infiltrating and polluting almost every conceivable ecosystem. They have even been found in the incredible remote deep sea

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When toxic chemicals and plastic are distributed into nature, it’s to be expected that they eventually end up in our food web. We drink the water and, if you’re not vegetarian, eat the fish that lived in the same water we dump our plastic waste into. Consuming microplastics can alter chromosomes and cause cancer, obesity, and infertility. It’s a seemingly unavoidable yet terrifying consequence of our careless use of plastic and other synthetic fibers. 

What About Recycled Polyester? 

To start, less than one percent of all textiles are recycled. Almost all polyester purchase is virgin polyester. While recycling the fiber is possible, the process is far from perfect. Recycling polyester means heating it up, which can be done only so many times since plastic breaks down with heat. This cycle is finite, so it’s not a reliable long-term solution. Heating up plastic releases a “carcinogenic antimony compound”. Along with the previously mentioned toxic wastewater, the nature of polyester seems inherently detrimental. 

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Like most other fibers, polyester can only be recycled if it has not blended with other fibers like cotton. A poly-cotton blend is very popular and completely eliminates the opportunity to recycle the cotton or polyester from any garment. On the bright side, recycled polyester is still generally more eco-friendly than virgin polyester, using 30-50 percent less energy than its virgin counterpart. So if you’re going to purchase polyester, going with the recycled option is a somewhat more mindful choice. 

Conclusion

Steer clear of polyester as much as possible. While it is not the sole reason our eco-systems are falling apart, it’s playing a significant part. When buying new clothes, try to go for degradable fibers like linen or lyocell. Little changes by regular people make the biggest difference. When you buy something, you cast a vote with your dollar on what you think is okay and what you support. So please try not to support polyester and its toxic and microplastic spreading properties! 

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