Polyester: The Real Environmental Impact

Written by Zenda Nel
Sustainability Fashion Writer

Most people have heard about microplastics -  but most of us are only vaguely aware of the alarming statistics that tell a truly terrifying story of humankind living and breathing plastics in everyday life. The problem is so pervasive that even the most pristine places on earth have not escaped. Microplastics have been found on the remote planes of Mongolia and the highest peaks of Mount Everest. 

You may think the microplastics come from the piles of plastic bottles that we throw away every day. Yes, but that’s not the whole story. The clothes we wear play a huge role. Almost two-thirds of all textile fabrics are synthetic, and more than half are made from polyester. 

Exactly what is polyester, and how does it relate to the all-pervasive and insidious presence of microfibres in our lives and the environment no matter where we live? 

Basically polyester is plastic and like all other plastics, it comes from petroleum. Below follows a simplified explanation of how polyester is created and how it came to play an integral role in the global microplastics problem. 

What exactly is polyester?

Polyester starts life as crude oil deep in the bowels of the earth. The oil industry extracts and refines the crude oil; then it moves on to the chemical industry, which produces polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and other chemicals from it. The chemical industry produces PET pellets or chips, which it supplies to the textile industry. PET is plastic, the same that’s used to make plastic bottles. 

The textile industry then converts the pellets into strings of fibres via extrusion and spinning. These fibres are a polymer - a long chain of repeating molecular units. Lastly, the fibres are made into textiles by knitting or weaving.

So, polyester is basically plastic, but why doesn’t it feel like plastic? Surely no one would buy clothes made from it if it felt like a plastic bag on the body? Textile manufacturers have refined the fibres to such an extent that it has become indistinguishable from natural fibres. T-shirts, jeans, shirts and dresses often look and feel like cotton when they are actually made of polyester.

How does polyester become a microplastic problem?

Textile fibres are not static – they react to movement, rubbing, touching, pulling and generally being handled. In the process of transporting, wearing, drying and washing our clothes, some fibres loosen to an extent and appear as fuzz on the surface of the fabric. 

If the textile experiences continued handling, the stress may cause the protruding fibres to break off, releasing microfibres into the environment. It’s also possible that the protruding fibres come loose over time and fall from the textile without breaking. Researchers have found that the washing of synthetic textiles is the main source of primary microplastics in the oceans.

One study found that 124 to 308 mg microfibres per kilogram of washed fabric were released depending on the type of washed garment. That represented a whopping 640,000 to 1,500,000 microfibres!

The environmental impact of microfibres released from polyester textiles

Microfibres have spread all over the planet and have been found on mountains and in rivers in Europe, America, Asia and the Arctic. Alarmingly, microfibres have also entered the food chain and have been detected in fruit and vegetable crops, as well as seafood.

Microfibres cause air, water, and soil pollution and are detrimental to human health.

  • Air pollution – microplastics are everywhere, even in pristine areas 
  • Microfibres can be present in the air indoors and outdoors, with concentrations being much higher indoors. Most of the microfibres come from our clothes, but other household textiles like upholstery, curtains and carpets also release microscopic fluff into the environment.

    Eventually, these particles fall onto the floor and furniture as dust. They also fall on food, and that is one way they enter the human food chain. 

    Microfibres that migrate outside can be carried by the wind and eventually fall in the form of dust in urban and other built-up areas, farmlands and even remote areas. Microfibres have been found in Mongolia, the Pyrenees and on Mount Everest. The latter would also be as a result of campers leaving synthetic equipment behind.

    Airborne microfibres can be carried by the wind over long distances, get trapped by raindrops and then fall on the ground far from where they originated.

    Photo by Naja Bertolt Jensen on Unsplash

  • Water pollution – microplastics a ubiquitous in the fish we eat
  • Microfibres are known to be present in oceans, seas, rivers, canals, lakes, and dams, including an Arctic freshwater lake. 

    Research into the presence of microfibres in tap water from 150 samples throughout the world has found an average concentration of 4.34 particles per liter. 

    Seafloor currents distribute microfibres which are ingested by sea creatures that humans eat. For instance, microfibres have been found in mussels from the Belgian and Dutch coasts, Icelandic cod, red mullet from the Mediterranean, and hake from the Atlantic coast on the Spanish coast.

    It is thought that most of the water pollution is caused by laundry effluent.

  • Land pollution – microplastics could threaten food security and biodiversity
  • Microfibres that are removed from wastewater remain in sewage sludge, which is often used as a fertilizer because it is a valuable source of nutrients. In Europe, 63,000 - 430,000 tons of microplastics enter farmland soil every year in this way, but microfibres have been detected in farmlands worldwide.

    Microfibres in soil enter the food chain through earthworms that are ingested by poultry. A scientific study has found that soil contaminated with microfibres from a household washing machine doesn’t provide enough nutrition for rye plants to germinate and grow. This prompted the scientists to warn that microfibres in sufficient concentrations could threaten food security and biodiversity.

  • Negative effects on human health
  • Factory workers are the first to have their health threatened by microfibres. They inhale airborne fibres on a daily basis, increasing the risk of respiratory disorders, including asthma, allergies and lung disease. Workers who are exposed to microfibres in their working environment over many years are at risk of developing lung cancer.

    The general public is exposed to microfibres through the air we breathe and the food we eat. The average person ingests 52,700 - 73,600 microparticles per person per year through diet alone. This can have serious health effects for some people as the hazardous compounds present on the surface of the microfibres may lead to oxidative stress, inflammatory response, cytotoxicity, tissue damage, fibrosis, and lung cancer in susceptible individuals.

    Scientists stress that more research is needed to determine the exact effect of microplastics on human health.

    Why recycled polyester isn’t a fail-proof solution

    Using recycled polyester has many ecological benefits: it takes half the energy to make, it doesn’t end up as waste in landfills and doesn’t require non-renewable resources.

    Using recycled polyester to create textiles and new garments reduces the use of fossil fuels as raw material. Also, garments made from recycled polyester could be recycled again, although not indefinitely.

    Another benefit of recycled polyester is the same as that of new polyester: it doesn’t require agricultural land, pesticides, and fertilizers to produce.  And unlike cotton, it doesn’t require large volumes of water to manufacture polyester. 

    Importantly, recycled polyester creates a demand for items like used plastic bottles, which would otherwise end up in landfills - every year about 51 billion plastic bottles go to landfill.

     However, recycled polyester has its limitations.

    • Recycled polyester also generates microscopic plastic fibres during each wash, which are released in the wastewater that ends up in the oceans. Whether made from virgin or recycled polyester, garments are at the root of microplastic pollution.
    • Recycling polyester requires a lot of energy because garments and shoes must first be dismantled to separate the different components that are often made from diverse textiles.
    • It’s difficult, and in many cases, impossible to recycle a garment made from different textiles, especially those made from a blend of polyester and other materials.
    • Polyester can’t be recycled indefinitely. Chemical recycling can take a used plastic product to its original monomers, so it can be used to create new polyester. However, most recycled polyester comes from mechanical recycling, which is cheaper and only requires detergents, but this process weakens the fibres. 
    • It’s risky to give the impression that everything we throw away can be recycled. If people believed this, they would just continue using disposable plastic goods.

    What can be done?

    The fashion industry needs the cooperation of all parties throughout the value chain to ensure a sustainable industry. Consumers must shop responsibly, making sure they know where the clothes they buy come from, which chemicals were used in the manufacturing process, and whether the clothes were ethically and sustainably produced. Here are a few actions consumers can take to combat the environmental impact of polyester.

    1.Research and support eco-friendly brands 

    Do some online research and look for brands that are committed to sustainable practices. Dozens of brands are committed to slow fashion practices and are keen to advertise their ethical and sustainable practices. Only buy from brands that give details of their factories, workers’ compensation, raw materials, and suppliers online. Use the Good On You app to know if a brand is really an ethical producer of garments.

    2.Check out thrift stores and buy second-hand

    Buying second-hand is sustainable, eco-friendly shopping that reduces waste and keeps clothing from landing in landfills. You can visit the thrift stores near you or find some online. Also, take your old clothes to the thrift stores so others can enjoy them.

    3.Reject fast fashion and shop less 

    The simplest way to reduce your fashion carbon footprint is to simply stop buying into the craze of fast fashion. Most of us buy many more clothes than we need and our closets are full of clothes that we don’t wear. You don’t have to stop shopping altogether, but try to commit to buying less often.

    4.Spare the soap and water 

    Since laundry effluent is responsible for most of the microfibres that land in the oceans, it makes sense to simply wash clothes less often. Also, you’ll be saving on detergents and electricity. Washing clothes less often also extends their lifespan. Try to wash less often, and if possible, dry your clothes outside instead of in the tumble dryer.

    5.Don’t buy clothes made from polyester

    Now that you understand where microplastics come from, check clothing labels and don’t buy garments made from polyester-containing textiles. It is unnecessary - there are many other options like organic cotton, bamboo, linen and more.

    Final thoughts

    The extent of the microplastic problem is shocking. Even that bottled water that you gulp down after a run is not safe. A litre of bottled water contains an average of 325 microplastic particles, and that applies to 93% of all bottled water. We simply have to be more responsible consumers and eschew fast fashion and the use of polyester fabrics. Of course, these efforts won’t solve the menace, but at least we won’t be contributing to it.

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