The Environmental Impacts of Polyester

Polyester is cheap and versatile and for that reason it has become ubiquitous in fashion, but the environmental impacts of polyester are also significant. Before we delve into the environmental impacts of this textile, it is worth discussing it’s characteristics to understand why it is such a popular choice in fashion.

Polyester is frequently used for its wrinkle-free properties. Clothing made from this textile tend not to need to be ironed or pressed to maintain their shape and surface. Because it often doesn’t need to be ironed and it can be washed easily in the washing machine, it is very convenient for the wearer to maintain.  It also tends to be quick drying which is useful in places that have long periods of cold or wet weather. High quality polyester lasts well and maintains the quality of it’s surface. However, the great majority of polyester on the market is very poor quality and it used by manufacturers because it is a cheap alternative to natural fibres. Most polyester clothing on the market is cheap, poor quality fast fashion, which will last few wears.

Polyester is a synthetic petroleum-based fibre, and is therefore made from a carbon-intensive non-renewable resource. Petroleum products are used as feedstock (raw material to make the fibre) and also used to generate the energy needed to manufacture. More than 70 million barrels of oil are used to make polyester each year.  It is not bio-degradable and will persist in the eco-system even as it eventually breaks apart. In fact, it is believed that synthetic garments are the biggest source of microplastic pollution in the oceans because up to 1900 fibres can be washed off one garment every time it is washed.

Although it is less energy intensive than nylon to produce, it still requires more than double the energy of conventional cotton to produce. The production of polyester uses harmful chemicals, including carcinogens, and if emitted to water and air untreated, can cause significant environmental damage. Most polyester is produced in countries such as China, Indonesia and Bangladesh where environmental regulations are lax, and air and water pollution is often discharged untreated, resulting in significant pollution and harm to communities in the vicinity of (as well as downstream and downwind of) manufacturing plants. The water-intensity of production is much lower than for natural fibres. However, polyester cannot be dyed using low impact and natural dyes. This means that the detrimental impact on water supplies is potentially far greater.

Polyester reycling

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One of the most positive aspects of polyester is that it is completely recyclable, and it is also possible to manufacture polyester from recycled plastics. This means that we can access the benefits of polyester without needing to manufacture from virgin petroleum stocks. There are an increasing number of new polyester-type fabrics that are made from recycled plastics, including the certified recycled fabric Repreve, which is made from recycled plastic bottles and is commonly used in sportswear and men’s swimwear. There are also some producers, such as Eco Intelligent Polyester that are infinitely recycleable and recycle old polyester clothing to create new polyester, however these are not yet common or easy to access.

The environmental impacts of polyester are significant. Cheap polyester is probably the biggest offender when it comes to the high environmental cost of fashion. If you want to maintain a sustainable wardrobe, it is best to avoid purchasing new polyester garments unless they are manufactured with fabric made from recycled polyester or recycled plastics. Due to the impact of micro fibres on oceans, I would avoid still avoid polyester garments as much as possible. Choose recycled polyester for garments such as rain wear or athletic wear if you prefer it’s performance for these specialised uses. But otherwise substitute it for natural fibres when you can. If you have old polyester garments to dispose of, investigate where you can have them recycled so that existing polyester stocks do not end up in landfill. Recycling programs for old textiles are becoming more common, but you will need to do your research to find our whether you have access to a program in your local area. Follow these practices and you can minimise the impact of your polyester use.

Guide to Sustainable TextilesIf you enjoyed this post and learned something new, you will learn a lot from my Guide to Sustainable Textiles. This thoroughly researched guide takes you through all the ethical and sustainability considerations in textiles to enable you to make purchase decisions that are in line with your ethics and commitment to sustainability. The 60 page guide covers all the major textiles, including leather and vegan leather alternatives, as well as a run down on textile certification systems which demonstrate sustainable processes. If you want to be able to assess the sustainability of your favourite brands, this is the guide you need.

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  • Francesca

    Brilliant post, really informative!

  • Pingback: Toxic fabrics and alternatives to synthetic fibers | Personal Shopper | Wardrobe Consultant | Image Consultant | Through The Closet Door()

  • Michelle Minyoung Kim

    Hi I am working on a school project and it is to compare environmental effects of cotton and polyester. Through this amazing post, I understood that polyester uses huge amounts of oil and chemicals, which damages the earth, but have you considered the fact that natural fiber require usage of pesticides? It is both harmful so for me, quite difficult to compare which one is a better choice… I would like to hear from your perspective. Thank you!

    • Thanks for your interest in this topic. In short, polyester uses more chemicals that cotton.

      Conventional cotton is the world’s dirtiest crop because it uses so many chemicals to grow. It also uses chemicals in processing. For more information on this, see my article on the environmental impacts of cotton.

      However, polyester uses far more chemicals than cotton, most simply because it is made from chemicals. Cotton is a textile that uses chemicals to help it grow, and to process it, but you can also get organic and traditional cottons that use nothing at all. So most cotton is natural fabric that uses chemicals to produce it, or can be a natural fabric that uses no chemicals at all. However, without chemicals, you cannot have polyester at all. It is a synthetic textile made from petrochemicals, and using harmful chemicals in it’s production.

      I hope this helps. Good luck with your project.

  • Gabriel Griffith

    Great article. However, you inaccurately say that polyester production uses 70 BILLION barrels of petroleum annually, whereas your source (Forbes) has the number at 70 million. Unfortunately an error like that makes me question your other claims.

    • Thank you for picking up on my typo. I have corrected it

      I would never intentionally misrepresent the facts. You can read much more about the impact of polyester in Kate Fletcher’s book Sustainable Fashion and Textiles, which is my primary source for much of the article.

      I am trying to make this information as accessible as possible, because at this point in time consumers have to do a great deal of research to figure out the whole story of a textile.

      Like any human being I do sometimes make mistakes, and I am glad to correct them if they are picked up by myself or any of my readers.

      • Gabriel Griffith

        Thank you for the book recommendation, I’ll definitely check it out. Again, overall an excellent piece and I really admire the work you’re doing. Keep fighting the good fight!