Walk into any fast-fashion store these days, and you’re bound to find something made from recycled polyester. It might even be labeled in green or have a brown paper tag that suggests the entire garment is eco-friendly. But is recycled polyester as green as clothing brands want us to think it is? And is it enough to offset the slave labor and waste they produce? 

What is Recycled Polyester? 

Recycled polyester is a general term for any polyester textile made from plastic waste. The plastic is broken down into tiny pieces and turned into yarn, then spun into polyester garments. At first glance, this seems like a fantastic solution to reducing plastic waste and virgin polyester production, but that’s not entirely true. 

The Catch 

Currently, the technology for recycling plastic into polyester can only go so far. This means that once the plastic waste is turned into a garment, it cannot be turned into anything else once it’s worn and will inevitably end up in a landfill. 

According to the Guardian, technology also limits what kind of garments can be produced from recycled plastic since “the fiber retains the dye color from its first iteration, so it can only be recycled into similar colors.” The recycled plastic can also often be hard to dye, which can result in manufacturers having to re-dye garments several times to achieve the desired color which requires more chemicals, water, and energy. 

This severely limits the potential of recycled polyester and hints that brands using it as their main selling point probably care more about appearances than actually reducing their waste production. 

Finally, recycled polyester still sheds the same amount of microplastics when washed. These microplastics spread like the plague and infect our bodies, our water supply, and marine life. Currently, any form of polyester is inherently polluting, regardless of whether it originates from plastic waste or virgin materials. 

Is It Better Than Virgin Polyester? 

Yes, recycled polyester is definitely better than its virgin counterpart. 

It takes plastic waste that would otherwise end up in a landfill and gives it a new life. While it doesn’t completely save the plastic from turning into trash, it’s better than nothing. In 2015, 26 million tons of plastic ended up in landfills, so any attempt to decrease this number is important and should be acknowledged. 

Recycled polyester also requires less energy and resources to manufacture. According to the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment, recycled textile uses 59 percent less energy to create the same product. However, it’s also important to remember that plastic is made from crude oil and gas, so finding methods to reduce or completely stop our consumption of these resources is imperative. 

Ethical Concerns 

Just because a brand is using recycled polyester does not mean their bad labor practices and mistreatment of their employees cancel out. Most fashion brands don’t pay their workers a living wage which means employees (mostly women) have to make serious sacrifices to provide for their families. 

It’s always important to mention that fashion labor laws aren’t just a humanitarian issue; it’s also a feminist issue. In 2019, the Ethical Fashion Guide determined that “68% of fast fashion brands don’t maintain gender equality at production facilities.” Women are disproportionately taken advantage of in the fashion industry, and producing and selling recycled polyester is not going to fix that. 

In Conclusion

Recycled polyester is a step in the right direction, but it still has a long way to go. Unfortunately, brands have taken advantage of this recycling technology as a marketing tactic. While we appreciate their efforts to move away from virgin polyester, it’s not enough to excuse their environmental and ethical practices. 

If you must buy something new made from polyester, recycled polyester is the better option, but it’s still not good enough.

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